Reading Bones like Braille: Dr. Mant Unlocking History Via Fishermen’s Bones

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Dr. Madeleine Mant’s recent procurement of a Banting fellowship is a first for MUN’s Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, and, she’s only the second Banting fellow ever to be named at Memorial University.

The Banting Post-doctorate Fellowship Program has a pretty simple goal of finding the brightest PhDs in the country and giving them funding ($70,000 for 2 years of research), so they can improve the country in some meaningful way, be it economic growth or the advancement of knowledge in their field.

Her research areas are pretty interesting: “palaeopathology, bioarchaeology, and medical history,” in other words, studying bones to interpret history. Because bones don’t lie, or fudge the truth, the way history can.

As it stands, the history of health records has primarily focussed on the health experiences of the elite, who could afford quality healthcare, and whose lines of work were relatively safer. As a result, history neglected to capture in words the health experience of the hardworking folks whose hands-on work sustained societies, like the Newfoundland fisherman.

People couldn’t afford private physicians, often trucked on untreated, or they relied on volunteer hospitals (receiving lesser care, and scantier paper trails medical records). There is far less information on these people’s experience with healthcare, so Dr. Mant is reading their bones to fill in gaps in the history of health for this demographic.

Fractures leave marks on bones, marks like scars that have a story. The busy working class ignored many ailments, like coughs, cuts, or infections, but fractures that prevented people from working or walking simply couldn’t be ignored, so they sought treatment for fractures, leaving a trail of hospital records for Dr. Mant, and it turns out that finger, toe, and rib fractures were the most common.

Her research has allowed her discern a history of activities. An excess of broken hand and nasal bones in this sector of people indicates a history of brawling among the working class in London, or else, a love of boxing. Females more frequently fractured their ankles; a common finding in modern day female athletes, so what were these women up to?

A history of injury patterns of the past, both recreational and occupational, can tell us a lot of what has changed or what hasn’t in terms of social and cultural and occupational behaviours. It can also reveal an increase in the types of things people now go to hospital for, since, in the past, hospital records indicate visits were primarily for bone fractures.

Knowing how historical health-related events affected the lifestyles and activities of people in the past, particularly the poor, illuminates the stories of previously underrepresented individuals, and how increased access to healthcare for all factions of society may have changed society.

Her Banting project is officially titled “Stories in Sailors’ Bones,” and to complete it, she’s studying the bones of 18th and 19th century sailors. Conveniently, she had two piles of bones available to her: a lot from Admiral Nelson’s Navy at the Royal Naval Hospital in the U.K., and a lot from   the Royal Naval Hospital in Newfoundland (circa 1725-1825).

Comparing the bone breaks of both Newfoundland- and London-based fisherfolk may well reveal parallels of the lifestyle, and better inform our understanding of “North Atlantic life” during this important historical time of trans-Atlantic trade and the colonisation of our province.

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Chris Donaldson

Chris Donaldson isn't even a townie. He has a background in social work, an interest in people doing the right thing, and splits his time between rural NL and big city Canada.

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