Calvin’s Slide Collection

Guest post by Meg Howe

Meg is a student of Forensic Archaeology and Anthropology BSc (Hons) at the University of Bradford and member of the Putting Flesh on the Bones team.

As part of my placement year I am working in the Biological Anthropology Research Centre (BARC) on the Putting Flesh on the Bones Project. Given my interest in Osteology and Forensic Anthropology, I have a significant interest in the Calvin Wells Archive and the many hundreds of slides in the collection.

A major part of the archive is the approximately 1600 35mm transparencies created and accumulated by Wells over the course of 30 years. The slides were used by Wells for research and lecturing purposes, and reflect his diverse professional, academic and personal pursuits. Having been donated to the University of Bradford in 1983, the slides were used for teaching and publication purposes before being overtaken by modern media. Despite their age, the slides are still of unique informational value and historical importance. Given the fragility of the format, it is our intention to digitise the slides and make them available online.

Dr Jack Roberts poses with a Mammoth femur (c.1960s)

In my role as Placement Student, I’ve been involved in the project since day one. While I was aware of Calvin Wells and the archive collection, I had little idea of its content or why it was important to preserve it. Originally, there were 12 slides boxes of all shapes and sizes. While some of the boxes we labelled by subject area, others remained a mystery. My first task was to catalogue slides in their original order. This entailed recording the labels on each slide, describing the image depicted, and noting whether it required conservation work. Most of the slides had Wells’ original numbers though many were missing labels or in wrong boxes. Moreover some of the slides are too fragile to handle and will be assessed by a conservator later in the project.

Osteoarthritis in archaeological remains

As previously mentioned, Wells had a diverse range of interests which is demonstrated within the slide collection. This includes human and animal palaeopathology, clinical and medical illustrations, and anthropological images from Africa, South America, Asia and Europe. It’s clear that Wells obtained the images from various sources, from his skeletal analysis work, museums and galleries, and from other publications or picture libraries.

Sling shot wound in skull from Cirencester, Gloucestershire

Human palaeopathology is the largest subject area in the collection, totalling 668 slides. Many of these slides are of bones which Wells analysed in his published skeletal reports. The palaeopathology subjects include fractures and blunt force traumas, infections, dental disease, histology and osteoarthritis.

The animal pathology slides contain very similar pathologies as the human

Deformed elephant tooth

palaeopathology. There is a mix of animals, such as elephant, deer and dolphin as well as prehistoric mammals and reptiles such as images of a mammoth femur and stretosaurus (a giant Pliosaur) tarsals and metatarsals.

Within the collection there is also a number of clinical photographs, which demonstrate pathologies such as tumours, elephantiasis and rhinophyma. Wells had a fascination with how such diseases were represented in ancient artwork and other cultural artefacts. This interest is further demonstrated in the numerous Anthropology slides, which are a mixture of photographs of figurines and paintings from around the globe. Most of the anthropological slides are pathology related, such as paralysis masks of in from the Makonde group in Tanzania and figurines or painting of individuals with tumours or scoliosis. Additionally, there is also a selection of slides classed as ‘erotica’ as depicted in ancient art and sculpture.

Slide Blog
Pottery vase in shape of a human head, Peru

One aspect of Wells’ research which was relatively unknown before starting the project was that of Ancient Egypt and the practice of mummification. Included in the slide collection are radiographs of pathologies in mummified remains, both human and animal, and microscope slides of mummified soft tissue.

While the collection is primarily related to Wells’ professional and academic life, there is a small number of personal photographs of family and friends. This includes pictures of Wells studying at home in Norfolk, holidaying in France and participating in his favourite sport – water-skiing!

The slide collection is now currently sorted into five key subject areas; Human paleopathology, Animal paleopathology, Anthropology; Africa, America/South America, Asia, Europe, Ancient Egypt and Personal.

Calvin Wells 1976 M102
Calvin enjoys a picnic in the South of France (c.1960s)

The next phase of the project will involve a conservator working on the slides and preparing them for digitisation. It is intended that many of Wells’ slides will be accessible via the University of Bradford’s Special Collections’ digital repository. This should be a valuable resource for those interested in palaeopathology, archaeology, osteology, and anthropology. Moreover the slides provide a visual historical record of Wells’ distinguished, varied and often eccentric life.


The Curious Case of the Skeleton in the Car

A particularly valuable part of the Calvin Wells Archive Collection is his correspondence files which have letters, note and postcards from prominent figures in the worlds of medicine, science, humanities, and arts. As the Putting Flesh on the Bones Project develops we will delve deeper into the conversations, collaborations, debates, and arguments which played out in Wells’ correspondence. Here is a just a selection of more informal communication from his friends and colleagues which serve as amusing vignettes into unique and often eccentric lives.

Detail of R R Clarke Postcard

A news cutting attached to a postcard from archaeologist and former Curator of Norwich Museums, Roy Rainbird Clarke. The article tells of Vilhelm Møller-Christensen driving across Denmark with a 500 year old skeleton in order to attract donations for Æbelholt Klostermuseum in North Zealand. This was not the first time the Danish palaeopathologist caused a stir by taking medieval skeletons on a long distance road trip. In 1953 he journeyed to the 6th International Congress on Leprosy in Madrid by car with ten leprous skeletons for use in a demonstration on bone malformations.

Above is a postcard from Møller-Christensen with an image of his aforementioned driving companion. Like Calvin Wells, Møller-Christensen’s reputation of being something of an enigmatic showman spread beyond the world of palaeopathology. Graham Greene included a reference to the Danish doctor in A Burnt-Out Case (1960) based on stories from their mutual friend, the famous leprologist Michel Lechat.

‘This character looks very distracted to me…’

Surprisingly schoolboy humour exhibited by the distinguished Welsh scientist, archaeologist and television personality Glyn Daniel. As editor of Antiquity, Daniel published, reviewed or declined Wells’ frequent contributions. In an unpublished article titled Editorial Arrogance and Bad Manners, Wells praises Daniel’s ‘scrupulous and gracious’ professionalism over the ‘discourteous tempering’ of other leading journal editors. The book referred to in the postcard is Bones, Bodies and Disease, which formed part of the Ancient People and Places series overseen by Daniel.

‘The brain is made in Germany’

A Thank You note to Calvin Wells from Folke Henschen, Professor of Pathological Anatomy at Karolinska Institutet and Chairman of the Medical Nobel Committee. The annotation ‘Gudden Del’ suggests that the image was created or featured in a publication by the renowned German neuroanatomist and psychiatrist Bernhard Von Gudden. Many of the books, journals and images in Wells’ archive collection show he had fascination with the human mind and mental health.

Felices Pascuas y Próspero Año Nuevo

A homemade Christmas and New Year card from the family of Peruvian pathologist Dr Oscar Urteaga-Ballon. During the 1960s, Calvin Wells corresponded with him regularly about the anthropology of ancient Andean societies. The front of the postcard shows the elongated head of a Paracas mummy aside a flower and potato plant. This unusual juxtaposition of images is made clear in Urteaga-Ballon’s accompanying correspondence. In ancient Paracas culture it was common practice for the dead to be mummified then buried in a funeral bundle with flowers, fruits and vegetables. However it remains unclear why the doctor thought this was a suitably festive concept for expressing Season’s Greetings.


The Global History of Paleopathology: Pioneers and Prospects Edited by Jane Buikstra, Charlotte Roberts New York, NY: Oxford University Press (2012)