Friday 7 October 2016

Britain is no longer a country for and says "Farewell" to its Grand Old Man of Paleopathology, Don Brothwell

Don, who has died at the age of 83, was born and raised in unpropitious circumstances, yet blossomed as a polymath and pioneer who was one of the first to see and apply the potential of combining a plethora of scientific approaches to the discipline of archaeology.

His memoir, published earlier this year, 'A Faith in Archaeological Science Reflections on a Life', laid out the extraordinary geography of his life and breadth of his achievement. It ranged from his examination of relatively recent human remains in 'Forensic Interludes : Kosovo', to those dating back several thousand years in 'Bog People and Other Friends' and 'The Neolithic Iceman'. 'In Search of Syphilis' reflected his interest in the role of disease in human history as did 'The Nature and antiquity of Disease'. Finally his 'People and Places' dwelt on his work beyond these shores in the Islamic World, Greenland, Mongolia and the Americas.

His more recent preoccupations were dealt with in 'My doubtful place in human culture' and 'Aspects of the Emotions' which dwelt on 'Evolving Beyond Religions', 'Love, the Ultimate Chimera' and 'The identification of Humour'. Finally, his 'Traversing the mindfield which is life' which covered his interest in 'Psychology archaeology', 'mind and reality','mind and conflict' and his conclusion with 'On the Possible Scenario for my Descendants Long in the Future'.

Born Don Reginald Brothwell he began life as a traumatised baby and only child of George and Constance in Basford, a suburb in northern Nottingham in the spring of 1933. His father had served in the Royal  Flying Corps during the First World War and worked for an electronics firm in Beeston, another suburb of Nottingham, where Don attended Beeston Fields Junior School during the first years of the Second World War.

Having failed his 11+ exam in 1943, Don began life at Beeston Fields Secondary School for Boys in 1944. It was a new school, but a tough one with a working class catchment, where discipline was severe and such grave misdemeanours as 'sulking', 'purposely forgetting gas masks', and 'mutinous muttering' received up to four strokes of the cane and were duly recorded in the headmaster's punishment book. In addition, it was one where pupils suffered from cases of diphtheria, scabies, bronchitis and pneumonia, scarlet fever and poliomyelitis, to say nothing of nits and verrucas. In 1947 the school took 9 boys from 'Silverwood Hostel for Maladjusted Boys', eight of whom were placed in Don's year.

Don, who had an early interest in natural history, spent hours observing and collecting specimens and used the kitchen stove to boil up corpses of guinea pigs and small animals in order to add their skulls to his bedroom-based museum.

His life changed at the end of the Second World War in 1945, when he recalled at the age of 12 or 13 he : "was shown material being recovered from the Trent Gravel Works consisting of fossil mammoth teeth and human bones, stone tools and neolithic pottery" and "became captivated by this and used to visit the local gravel works to see the office manager to see what they’d got. That was the first thing that whetted my appetite."

Fortunately, he lived relatively near an Iron Age fort at Breedon-on-the-Hill in Leicestershire which was excavated by Dame Kathleen Kenyon. He recalled : "Part of the hill on which the hillfort stood had already been blasted away for road metal. I saw where she’d been digging and had taken sections through the Iron Age ramparts, but she had also explored a cemetery inside the Iron Age fort."

Picture the young Dom, with his school friends, (probably with some in this school photo from 1946, where he stands, bespectacled and 4th in on the back row from the left), seeing the remains of skeletons at the base of the quarry and asking the one-legged manager if they could dig them out and being told “Yes, yes, you can dig up there, no archaeologist ever falls to his death from the top of the quarry face”. Apparently they saved quite a few skeletons or parts of skeletons, which found there way to the Royal College of Surgeons in London which provided "another boost" to his interests.

Still at school and in his teens, he "got drawn into an excavation at Thurgarton in Nottingham. It was a medieval site with burials coming out, so I was involved in excavating them." Apart from learning "an interesting lesson an interesting lesson about geology in relation to archaeological sites", Don met the brilliant Australian-born archaeologist and Director of the Institute of Archaeology, London. He recalled : "this funny blue-nosed gangling character who was introduced as Professor Childe, so I met Gordon Childe for the first time in the field."

Dom left school at the age of 16 in 1949 and enrolled at Art College in Nottingham, but instead, in his words, became "an art school dropout," because he had started to "read around archaeology and anthropology in general and I got bitten by this bug, so I dropped out and abandoned the idea of being an art teacher." He maintained that art and painting and not archaeology always remained his first love.

It was now that he "had to start studying geology, biology and chemistry from scratch, having abandoned art." To help support himself financially while he studied for 'A' Levels, he worked in the chemistry lab of Nottingham Technical College which was an experience which would later help him "understand all the work in archaeological chemistry."

As a student he had been deferred from National Service in the Armed Forces and at the age of 19, applied for a place to study a Bachelor of Science Degree in Anthropology with Geology and Zoology at University College, London but, as he recalled, "as soon as I’d finished my A-levels I got a letter saying : 'Her Majesty wants you in the Army,' so I had to tell Her Majesty that I wasn’t prepared to go in, and thus I finished up in Lincoln Prison for a while, which was an extremely formative period of my life, I must confess."

It was Dom's pacifist beliefs, spurred by his father's experience in the First World War and an interest in Quakerism and the ideas of Tolstoy and Gandhi that had put him in a prison, which he found to be : " A nice old Victorian building where the food wasn't too bad" and which was "quite good fun." On the other hand, he shared his spartan Victorian-style cell with inmates "who were certified as ‘defective’ and so on, and we were all crowded together." Which he found to be "an absurd state of affairs."

Don didn't waste his two months in prison and continued to collect animal skulls and and came out, "I’m pleased to say, with another skull, this time of a bulldog that I’d picked up in the prison grounds on one of my exercises." Initially, he had been refused permission to take it out because : "on the way out, as on the way in, you strip down starkers and you move from one part of the prison to the other, so off came my prison greys and so on, and I put on my other clothes. As I was leaving the prison, I felt in my pocket and there was this skull. One of my friends in prison had obviously put it there." Dom's time in prison was relatively short-lived since "in court they knew that I had been offered a place at UCL so they let me out in time to take it up, which was kind of them."

On discharge from prison in 1955 he began life as an undergraduate at University College which would prove to be the second formative phase in his life, with his introduction to geology, zoology, archaeology and anthropology, which would influence the shape and scale of his future career in research.

Don found himself in Aladdin's Cave and was reaching out in all directions to 'vertebrate zoology' and "Sir Peter Medawar who was a Nobel Prize winner for some of his early tissue transplant work" (left) ; "Professor Hans Gruneberg who was a geneticist working on mammal skeletal variation" (right) and "attended the human genetics lectures of Professor Lionel Penrose." He later confessed : "The problem was that really, I had bitten off more than I could easily chew; there was far too much laboratory work and so on. I do know that, in anthropology, they were a bit anxious about me because I was being tugged in too many directions. Anyway, I survived. Just about."

He had also come into contact with the the Institute of Archaeology and, once again, Gordon Childe and found that he "could cover archaeology with anthropology and quite a few of us did. I did a course on prehistoric European archaeology and a special paper on British prehistoric archaeology, as well as my anthropology subjects."

Having graduated in 1956, he undertook an MA in Anthropology at Cambridge University and was then two years into his doctorate in Physical Anthropology and a programme of research involving one of the earliest explorations of human skeletal material, when he was offered and accepted, a five year contract as a 'Demonstrator' in the Faculty of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University.

Still in his twenties, with time and energy, he worked on a cast of the skull of Robert the Bruce in 1958; the identification of a Down Syndrome skull in his Saxon Cemetery Collection in 1959; changes associated with leprosy in medieval skulls from Scarborough; a discussion of the evidence of cannibalism in Prehistoric Britain; the potential of studying human dental remains; a comparative study of the evidence of trepanning undertaken with the British Museum Natural History Department.

In all this, he laid the foundations of his career in paleopathology and for the first synthesis of available paleopathologic evidence of early British remains, he won the the 'Curl Bequest Prize Essay Award' and not surprisingly, in 1961 at the age of 28, was offered the position of 'Senior Scientific Office at British Museum. Natural History' with special responsibility for the growing human skeletal collections which he referred to in  the early days as the "human bones desert."

What followed, was a very productive period during which he "got to know this archaeologist who many students were attracted to, a bit of a rogue really, but he was also very nice and certainly a very stimulating colleague; Eric Higgs. In fact we got together in the early 60s and produced the first edition of 'Science and Archaeology'" which was published in 1963. In the same year he also published his 'Dental Anthropology' which, in the opinion of Professor Keith Dobney of the Department of Archaeology at Aberdeen, led to 'the paradigm shift in the discipline' and the first International Dental Morphology Meeting.

In addition, he later recalled : "At the time I was also writing 'Digging up Bones'which I was doing because I couldn’t find anything which advised archaeologists on what to do with their bones. There were all these sites producing skeletal material and there seemed to be no handbook which people could go to, so I got a bit locked in on that as well." It would be his major contribution to the field of bioarchaeology.

He worked with Andrew Sandison, Senior Pathologist at the Western Infirmary, Glasgow to write 'Diseases in Antiquity' in 1967, which was based on their examination of ancient literature, art and skeletal remains. In the 1970s he was instrumental in seeing the Museum's anthropological section, a small sub department in Paleontology become a centre for excellence for the study of human remains, health and disease and patronised by the likes of Louis Leakey and Bill Hales.

On return to Britain, after acting as a visiting lecturer in Berkeley University in the USA in 1966, he was promoted form 'Senior to Principal Scientific Officer' at the British Museum, a position he held before taking up the post 'Senior Lecturer', then 'Reader, in Zooarchaeology' in  the Department of Human Environment, Institute of Archaeology, University of London at the age of 41 in 1974.

His growing interest in zooarchaeology took him back to the non human skeletal remains of his youth : domesticated guinea pigs, Amerindian dogs, seaweed eating sheep and pest species like the house mouse. It was, however, with human remains that he achieved prominence when he convened a team of diverse experts to study the remains of 'Lindow Man' in Cheshire which examined evidence of trauma, stomach contents, fingernails and beard hair revealed to the public in 'The Bog Man and the Archaeology of People' in 1986.

In 1993, at the age of 60, after 20 years work at the Institute and still not a full professor, he took early retirement and began life as Professor of Human Palaeoecology at the University of York with the brief to drive forward the new archaeological science and palaeocology focus in the Department of Archaeology. He later recalled : 'So I came up, and I was rather lumbered, I must confess, with all the science teaching. I did an introductory course on archaeological science, and you name it, I did it, but I must say that I read a lot about archaeological chemistry and so forth that I didn’t know about before, so it was a most stimulating time.' 

On his retirement at the age of 66 in 1999, Don, known for his self-effacement, had to be tricked into attending his own celebration with an invitation to be keynote speaker at a meeting with a fictitious programme. Since then he produced a 'Handbook of Archaeological Sciences', dealing with the application of radiology to mummies and fossils and in 2010 gained five year funding for research into the chemistry and fossilisation of bone and soft tissue. His fear that, if he died before it was completed, any outstanding money would have to be returned, was not realised.

Keith Dobney recognised Don as a 'giant in the field' who had been 'single-handedly responsible for both the creation and directions of entire new disciplines and new ways of thinking' and thought that 'his lasting legacy is best seen not in the publication and accolades, but in the generations of young scholars he taught, mentored and inspired.'

Don was given a small family funeral. His self-effacing wish went unfulfilled :

    "When I go, just put me out with the bins”

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