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 In an unpublished article titled Editorial Arrogance and Bad Manners, Wells praises Daniel’s ‘scrupulous and gracious’ professionalism over the ‘discourteous tempering’ of other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)


Remembering Calvin

with Dr Keith Manchester

Dr Keith Manchester instigated the academic discipline of human osteology and palaeopathology in the School of Archaeological and Forensic Sciences at the University of Bradford in 1980. He is an Honorary Visiting Professor in Palaeopathology, retired General Medical Practitioner with fifty years’ experience, and author of numerous articles and publications.

Keith 1]
Keith Manchester with graduate student (c1980s)

A close friend of Calvin and Freddie Wells, Keith was instrumental in securing the transfer of the archive collection to the University of Bradford. His expert subject knowledge alongside unique personal connection to the collection means Keith is a significant asset to the Putting Flesh on the Bones project.

Dr Keith Manchester Meg Howe 2017
Keith and BARC Placement Student Meg Howe (2017)

In this interview, Keith talks about Calvin’s background, his friendship with the Wells family, and the story behind the archive collection and library. We also delve into the more controversial and enigmatic aspects of Calvin’s life and legacy.

How did you come to develop a correspondence with Calvin?

I first had contact with Calvin in 1972, seeking his opinion on human skeletal remains recovered in excavations at Sandal Castle. He was immensely helpful and, indeed, very patient with me, not a characteristic for which he was generally known. Our relationship developed and we became close corresponding friends. Sadly, I never got to meet him personally, and he died having just written to me with his terminal cancer diagnosis of carcinoma of the prostate, enumerating, in his matter of fact way, the sites of his skeletal metastases.

Classroom Combined
Calvin conducts a lesson for Toronto school children (c1960s)

After Calvin’s death you developed a close friendship with his wife and daughter?

Yes. As a consequence of a paper which I wrote on the palaeopathology on the Royalist Garrison at Sandal, which was published in OSSA, Freddie contacted me. She said that, on reading my paper, she felt that I was the reincarnation of Calvin. I felt very honoured, just as I did when Professor Vilhelm Møller-Christensen said that I was his alter ego.

The friendship of my wife, myself and our family with Freddie and her daughter Satra rapidly developed into a close relationship with mutual visits being frequently paid to Bradford and to their house ‘White Horse Cottage’ in Hapton, and this continued throughout the lives of Freddie and Satra.

Calvin and Freddie Wells, Vilheim Moller- Christensen 1962 Cropped
Calvin and Freddie entertain Vilhelm Møller-Christensen at Mulbarton Old Hall, Norwich(1962)

Tell me a little bit about Calvin’s archive and library, and your role in bringing it to Bradford?

Calvin had amassed a very considerable archive of books, papers, photographs, 35mm slides, x-rays, and palaeopathological specimens, of immense academic value, all of which were kept in a large library at their cottage. This was overseen by the cremated remains of Calvin in an urn, which Freddie kept in the library and talked to frequently.

During one of my visits my wife and I made to Hapton, Freddie expressed that it was Calvin’s wish that his archive should  be donated to a University which established a graduate course in palaeopathology. In the interim it was being looked after by The Wellcome Trust.

When the MSc in Human Osteology and Palaeopathology was introduced into the curriculum of the Department of Archeological Science in Bradford, Freddie deemed that Bradford was the correct recipient. We owe her an enormous debt of gratitude, as there were several other international academic institutions vying for the collection at the time.

Neanderthal Skull. Mount Carmel
Detail from Calvin Wells notebook ‘Homo neanderthalensis, Mount Carmel, Palestine’ (c1970s)

What are your favourite parts of Calvin’s Archive Collection ?

His slide collection, notes and correspondence, and not to mention the huge collection of books. Calvin had the ability to explore a wide variety of subjects in palaeopathology and the history of medicine. He was a very talented man all round, a polymath really. This is reflected in the archive material.

Calvin clearly left an impressive legacy but he also held some controversial opinions. For example, he was adamant that anybody practicing palaeoathology should have qualifications in medicine. Considering the evolution of discipline, do you think he would’ve changed his mind?

I’m not sure Calvin changed his mind about anything! That will likely come across in his correspondence. Though the discipline wouldn’t now exist if it had to rely on people who were medically qualified. Really for doctors, palaeopathology can only be taken on as a part-time interest. Though with the current demands on the profession in the UK, it would be far more difficult for a GP now to do what Calvin and I did.

Detail from bone report on excavations at Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk (c1960s)

A significant criticism leveled at Calvin is that in both his professional correspondence and publications he had habit of being too emotive in his language. Critics have commented on his inappropriate language and terminology. Do you think this is a fair criticism?

Calvin didn’t have any hang-ups but he also didn’t suffer fools gladly. Perhaps he was guilty of making interpretations with too much exaggeration. For example, he talked about Anglo-Saxon serfs romping in the haystacks of East-Anglia. I mean they may well have done, but I don’t think Calvin could find any skeletal evidence for that!

However I think that I knew Calvin, by correspondence, better than anyone now alive, and knew Freddie and Satra very well. In addition to be being a much beloved family man and friend, he was an ethical and highly regarded physician and palaeopathologist.

Calvin water-skied daily (c1960s)

Is it unusual for a medically trained professional, who was known for being conservative in his diagnosis, to make such imaginative interpretations of what he saw?

Sir Mortimer Wheeler said that ‘Dead archaeology is the driest dust that blows’. In other words, unless you start making an interpretation then all you have are lists, diagrams, tables. I feel the same way about palaeopathology, if you’re just going to describe palaeopathological lesions and not extend beyond that, then that too is the ‘driest dust that blows’. It’s interesting, but it doesn’t advance anything. In my opinion archaeology, and palaeopathology, is a way of understanding people in the past. If you don’t use modern methods, modern experience, to interpret the lesions that you see in skeletal remains then there is no way you can put flesh and blood onto the bones. This is necessary to understand the sufferings, disabilities, and pains of people in distant antiquity. Those were Calvin’s ethics as well.

Keith Manchester at the University of Bradford (2017)

Dr. Keith Manchester and Charlotte A. Roberts authored a biography on ‘Calvin Percival Bamfylde Wells (1908-1978)’ in The Global History of Paleopathology: Pioneers and Prospects Edited by Jane Buikstra, Charlotte Roberts New York, NY: Oxford University Press (2012) pp.141-145