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Introduction For the Love of Bones Diane France loves bones. Does that sound weird? It will make perfect sense in a moment, as soon as you read her amazing story. Diane is a forensic anthropologist, a bone detective. Skeletons are her key to a life full of grand adventures. Bones lead Diane all around the world and back in time. One day she's in Russia "meeting" the skeletons of a royal family who lived a century ago. Another day she is peering into the empty eye sockets of an American outlaw. Meanwhile, the skulls of eight Civil War soldiers line the shelves of her Colorado lab. Diane is thrilled, most of all, when she uses her science know-how to help people struck by disaster. Moments after a phone call, she rushes to the scene of a plane crash, a fire, an accident, or terrorist bombing to identify victims. She examines the bodies of murder victims for clues about how they died. When a body is missing, she searches for it with a team that specializes in finding hidden graves. Why does Diane France love bones? How did she become a bone detective? This small-town girl let science lead the way to a world of adventure. ix
Why does Diane France love bones? How did she become a bone detective? This small-town girl let science lead the way to a world of adventure.
1 DIANE FRANCE'S BRAIN A brain is floating in a plastic bucket that's sitting, alone, on a table. The hand-printed label says "Diane France's brain." The people who file in and out of the room know that name Diane France handles well. Dr. Diane France is a well-respected scientist--and has been bones almost every day, measuring them for nearly 20 years. To many of these people, she is also a friend. (opposite) and study- A visitor blurts out, "Oh no! What happened to poor Diane?" ing them for clues There's a moment of silence as eyes shift from the visitor to the about a person's life and death (above). bucket and back to the visitor. Then, everyone cracks up. Between She reminds herself chuckles, someone explains that the brain does belong to Diane to "handle with care" France; that's true. But it isn't her brain, the one inside her head. That out of respect for the original owner: brain is still alive and thinking and, at this very moment, sharing a living human being. its knowledge with other scientists just a couple of miles away. Diane is in Washington, D.C., to teach a course at the 1994 Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP) annual conference on anthropology. For now her mind is on bones, not brains. She is teaching participants how to tell the life story of a dead person by examining the skeleton in fine detail. After the class she plans to drop off her bone specimens and pick up her brain at the AFIP's museum, the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM). The brain--the one in the plastic bucket--is one of 10,000 anatomical specimens housed in the museum. 1
Paul Sledzik (right) A buddy of Diane's, Paul investigates the Sledzik, is in charge of these contents of a 17th-century grave brains, hearts, lungs, limbs, for a study of life in bones, samples of blood colonial Maryland. and skin tissue, and other DETECTIVE Diane France (below) creates a preserved body parts. Paul fake crime scene for happens to be an expert on a class she teaches vampire legends, but that's BONE on recovering evidence. not what earned him this macabre job. He's a physical anthropologist, a scientist skilled in identifying skeletal remains. So is Diane. That's why, when she asked Paul for a brain one day, she knew he wouldn't blink. What Is Forensic Anthropology? Anthropology comes from the Greek word for the "study of human beings." We humans are a complex bunch, so there are four areas of specialty: cultural anthropology (societies--past and present) linguistic anthropology (languages) archaeological anthropology (past civilizations studied through their artifacts) physical anthropology (all variations in the biology of the body, including human ancestors and relatives) Forensic anthropologists are physical anthropologists who examine human remains that are part of an investigation--a murder, an accident, or a disaster, for example. 2
~Hand Me a Tissue Anthropologists routinely handle "specimens" or "anatomical sam- ples" or "biological material." Sometimes, they just call it "tissue." All of these shapeless terms veil the human truth--that every body part once belonged to a living being. Diane believes that this fact is very important to remember and respect. It's something she tells her students as soon as she introduces them to human bones. On the other hand, working with body parts is creepy, even revolting at times. Using scientific terms can make a rather nauseating job easier to handle. Humor helps, too. The "Diane France's brain" story is already making the museum rounds. In fact, this "just another day at the Scientists study office" attitude is why Paul labeled the brain in the first place. He body parts at didn't want a well-meaning curator (a museum worker) to reshelve the NMHM in the brain before Diane had a chance to pick it up. Washington, D.C., to learn about Diane is collecting brains as a job, not a hobby. The National injuries, diseases, Zoo in Washington, D.C., hired her to make casts--or detailed and medical copies--of animal brains for an exhibit. So far she has rounded treatments from Civil War times up a nut-sized squirrel brain, an orangutan brain the size of a to the present. large fist, and a fin whale brain the size of a basketball. These specimens are waiting for her at the Smithsonian Institution in the heart of Washington, D.C. Later, she will fly to Detroit, Michigan, to borrow an elephant brain from a biologist. "Diane France's brain"--the one at the museum--is human. Many of the specimens at the NMHM are historic. The museum began collecting them in the 1860s, during and after the American Civil War. But Paul made sure that Diane's brain is "pristine and modern" so that she can produce a good cast. The well-preserved brain is from a recently deceased cadaver, a body donated for use in medical schools and research. DIANE FRANCE'S BRAIN 3
Diane makes a rubber Finding fresh brains mold of a cranium, has turned out to be the top part of the skull. Liquid plastic the easy part. Making poured into the mold brain casts will be a real will harden quickly intellectual challenge. DETECTIVE into a cast--a high- quality copy of the Diane usually makes cranium. Diane's plastic casts of hard casts sell to zoos, tissue--bones, teeth, BONE museums, schools, and anyone else who and cartilage--but wants to bone up on brains are floppy and anatomy. jiggly. Set one on a table and it droops like an underfilled water balloon. Somehow, Diane will have to make these brains keep their true shape while she makes a mold. There's no "how-to" book on the subject, so she'll have to use her own brain to invent a way. ~What a Day to Dress Up After Diane's class ends and the AFIP conference winds down, she packs up her bones and gets ready to swing by the NMHM. She opens the door to a sky dumping buckets of rain. She is seriously dressed up in a pink silk blouse, black suit jacket, matching black slacks, high heels, dangling earrings, and a long gold necklace. She has no umbrella. She has no car. Luckily, she has another good friend. Tom Crist is an archaeologist, someone who normally hangs around artifacts that are old and decrepit. But when it comes to cars, he prefers one that is new and shiny. He offers to drive Diane in his spotless Pontiac Bonneville--"dark green with tan leather seats," he adds. It's a no-brainer. Minutes later, at the museum entrance, Diane unloads her box of bones in the downpour. The rain shows no sign of easing up, so Tom kindly agrees to drive Diane downtown, to the Smithsonian Institution, where she plans to make her casts. Diane asks him to wait--it will take just a minute--while she collects her brain. 4
She winds her way through the museum to a small back room and spots "Diane France's brain" on a table. She picks up the plastic, two-gallon bucket. It's light--about the weight of half a gallon of milk--even with the liquid preservative. Diane recognizes the odor of formalin: sharp with a hint of wintergreen, but not as pungent as formaldehyde, the preservative in its pure form. In fact, it's barely noticeable through the bucket's plastic lid. ~Not-So-Easy Does It As Diane heads back to the museum lobby, she tries to keep the brain from sloshing around too much. The high heels sure don't help. Wearing them, or any shoes, for that matter, isn't her usual style. She and her malamute dog, Moki, both pad around barefoot in her casting lab in Fort Collins, Colorado. It's one of the perks of owning the place, and her sole human employee doesn't mind a bit. Diane even gives lectures and teaches workshops while barefoot, a habit she started in order to feel less nervous and now does for comfort. Sometimes, she invites the audience to take off their shoes, which gets a few laughs and puts everyone at ease. Bucket firmly in hand, high heels balanced, Diane walks out the door of the small specimen room. She goes around the bend, past some filing cabinets and shelves, down a long, narrow passageway, a turn to the left, and, the tricky part: a one- handed push through a brass-and-glass door. Then, both hands back on the bucket, she continues down the long corridor to Diane's pet malamute, the lobby, where her heels echo--click, click, click--across the Moki, knows not to stick her nose into marble floor. anything in Diane's lab. The lobby is a public exhibit area. This being a museum of She's content to sit and preserved body parts, the displays both repulse and fascinate visitors. watch the bones go by. DIANE FRANCE'S BRAIN 5
Diane doesn't even notice what's in the glass cases. She's focused solely on the specimen in her hands. Through the exit doors, she can see that the rain hasn't let up and that Tom's car is parked in a driveway about 15 feet away. She'll have to make a run for it--high heels, brain, and all. Paul opens one of the museum's DETECTIVE four giant doors, and Diane steps out onto a large roofed terrace. Grasping the bucket with both hands, she makes a beeline for the Pontiac. BONE Tom has opened the back door so that she can slide right in. She plops down on the smooth leather seat and, in the blink of an eye, the unthinkable happens: The plastic bucket flexes in her hands, the lid pops off, and the brain splashes out on her lap. Without thinking, Diane scoops it up and pops it right back in the bucket. Then, she thinks, Wow, this burns. ~Feeling the Burn Formalin is all over Diane's lap, her hands, and--oh man, poor car! Mortified, she notices that the fine leather in Tom's brand new ride has taken a direct hit. She feels bad about the car--she really does--but her legs and hands feel like they're on fire. Diane jumps out into the downpour, hoping the rain will wash away some of the formalin. "Oh man, it's still burning," Diane says, waving raindrops onto her body. Formalin can sting the nostrils a little if you sniff it up close. Diane begins to wonder what it might be doing to her suit pants, her silk blouse, her skin, and--oh no, Tom's new leather seats! Her skin wins out. Diane runs to the museum's ladies' room. She strips off the black pants . . . the suit jacket . . . that fancy pink blouse . . . and splashes handfuls of water on her stinging skin. Finally, after some wet paper towel action, the pain eases to a tolerable level. But then, Diane realizes, she's standing there in her underwear. She puts on her blouse and high heels and looks at the formalin-soaked slacks on the floor. No way am I wearing those things anytime soon. 6
There's a knock on the restroom door and then a familiar voice. "Are you okay, Diane?" her pal Paul asks from the other side. She calls back that she's more embarrassed than hurt. "Would you happen to have anything I could wear?" Moments later an arm appears through the door holding a pair of men's gym shorts. Paul's not a large man, but Diane is petite-- short and thin with a small frame. She puts on his shorts, but the baggy things won't stay up. She'll have to hold them. She pinches the waistline tight in her fist and walks awkwardly out of The plastic bucket flexes in her hands, the ladies' room, still in her the lid pops off, and the brain splashes out high heels. on her lap. Without thinking, Diane scoops Paul can't help it. He starts it up and pops it right back in the bucket. laughing, which gets Diane laughing too. She does look ridiculous, and these guys are going to tease her about it forever, but at least she's okay. She wonders if Tom can say the same about his car. Still holding up the shorts, she dashes out the door and through the rain. Diane looks first inside the bucket on the floor of the car. No brain damage, she's relieved to see. There's even enough formalin left to cover the tissue. Then, she glances at Tom's leather seat. It's both soggy and stinky. It will eventually dry, but Diane can only hope the stench of formalin will fade with time. Tom tells her not to worry; it's just a car. A brand new Pontiac Bonneville, dark green with tan leather seats, Diane can't help thinking. ~A Drop in the Bucket Clearly, Diane has no choice but to call it a day, so Tom drops her off at her hotel. Diane's mother, Dolores, has come along for the trip and watches, wide-eyed, as her 40-year-old daughter walks into their room. Diane is carrying a brain in a bucket in one hand, holding up baggy gym shorts with the other, and reeking of an odor not found in nature. She's still wearing the heels, earrings, and gold necklace, but now they look comically out of place. DIANE FRANCE'S BRAIN 7
Dolores can't imagine what has happened, but the sight before her is not a total surprise. Here's her only daughter, a well-respected scientist with a Ph.D., looking like the unruly tomboy she once was. Dolores remembers dressing Diane in ladylike outfits and pin curls, only to find her playing in a mud puddle moments later. DETECTIVE Mother and daughter share a good laugh as Diane heads for a hot shower. The next day Diane carries the brain to the Smithsonian on the BONE Metro train without mishap, though she has no trouble imagining a spill--kerplunk, kerplunk, kerplunk--on the long escalator ride down to the subway. As the Smithsonian curators hand over their squirrel, orangutan, and fin whale brains, they mention they're worried about damage, especially to the whale brain. At about 15 pounds, that brain takes two very strong hands just to hold it. Diane assures them that she's a trained professional--she knows what she's doing. Then she thinks, But I still don't know how to do it. How in the world am I going to make a mold of these floppy brains? That hurdle turns out to be a lot higher than Diane expects. In one of the Smithsonian's curation "Diane France's brain" rooms, she carefully places "Diane France's brain" on a table and made it from plastic props it up around the edges with clay. But the clay doesn't stick bucket to bronze cast to the table, and the brain loses its shape. That's no good. with all its folds, grooves, and other Next, she tries putting the brain in a pan and smooshes clay details intact. around the inside edge of the container. Still no good. Finally, after more trial and error, Diane grabs a stainless steel bowl--just like one in her kitchen--and presses clay in a ring around the curved bottom. She adds a layer of formalin-soaked paper towels to keep the bottom of the brain damp. Then, she carefully nestles the brain in the ring. It works! The brain holds its shape as she coats the top with a liquid form of silicone rubber. The rubber hardens to make one-half of a mold. To make the other half, all she'll have to do is flip over the brain. Mission accomplished. 8
Please touch: A girl examines a bronze cast of a human brain at the Think Tank exhibit at Washington's National Zoo, while another visitor probes a bronze cast of an elephant brain. Back in Colorado, Diane uses the brain molds to make bronze casts for the National Zoo's Think Tank exhibit. They look so cool she makes two extra copies. She gives one to her father, Dave. He's a doctor, and they share a love for anything anatomical. Diane keeps the other brain for herself as a reminder of her latest adven- ture. It's just a drop in the bucket compared to her many other "great moments" in science, but the memory will always make her chuckle. Humor helps lighten the darker side of her life as a forensic anthropologist, as she analyzes human remains that are evidence in an investigation--murder victims, for instance. Both casts and crimes have taken Diane around the world, but the journey all began in a tiny town called Walden. There, as a young girl, Diane France's brain was full of curiosity--and a little mischief, too. DIANE FRANCE'S BRAIN 9