MSU’s Zuckerman part of research team featured in prestigious scientific journal, work to redefine use of skeletons

Contact: Sarah Nicholas

Portrait of Molly Zuckerman
Molly Zuckerman (OPA photo)

STARKVILLE, Miss.—Research by Molly Zuckerman, professor in Mississippi State’s Department of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures, is featured in Communications Biology—a division of Nature—as part of a multi-institution, interdisciplinary project challenging the perspective of using human remains as objects for scientific study and, instead, using them as a pathway for reconstructing unique experiences, circumstances and places within history.

The article “Remembering St. Louis individual—structural violence and acute bacterial infections in a historical anatomical collection” was published Oct. 3. Visit to read the complete article.

Funded by the National Science Foundation, University of Oklahoma and Smithsonian Institution, the interdisciplinary investigation explores the cause of death and social, political and economic circumstances surrounding the death of “St. Louis Individual”—referred to as St.LI—a 23-year old Black or African American male who died in the 1930s in St. Louis, Missouri. The results reveal evidence of structural violence and chronicle the impact of systemic racism in historically marginalized communities.

St. LI is part of the Robert J. Terry Anatomical Collection, which is held at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. The Terry Collection includes about 1,700 human skeletons, which represent individuals who lived and died around St. Louis between 1898 and 1967.

Historical collections of human skeletons are found at universities and museums across the world and have long been considered important for teaching and research on human health and disease in medicine and anthropology.

In new research by Zuckerman and her colleagues, the team challenges that perspective and the scientific dehumanization of individuals within these historical documented collections and instead seeks to look at the “person as a whole,” the study explains.

According to lead principal investigator and lead author of the article Rita Austin, postdoctoral researcher at the Natural History Museum of Oslo, “Combining information from DNA preserved within calcified dental plaque, or calculus, on St. LI’s teeth with historical documents that contextualize their life, and information about their overall health gleaned from their skeleton has given us an extraordinary look into their life and how racism, poverty and violence in 1930s St. Louis, Missouri, shaped this person’s life.”

Dental calculus studied from St.LI yielded bacteria that commonly caused pneumonia and hospital infections before antibiotics became widespread in the 1940s.

“Indeed, pneumonia was one of the most common causes of death amongst humans in the past, especially for the poor, older adults, and other marginalized communities living in progressively crowded and cramped cities from the medieval period into the Industrial Revolution,” said Zuckerman, a co-PI on the project.

“This means that despite being one of the biggest killers in history, pneumonia is largely invisible in the past. Indeed, it’s extremely rare that researchers can identify exactly what killed people in the past, or their cause of death. But the bacterial DNA in St.LI’s calculus precisely matches their recorded cause of death of pneumonia. This means that calculus, which dentists scrape off the teeth of the living, can give us an otherwise impossible window directly into what killed many people in the past and shed light into the end of their lives, which for many who were marginalized, such as those shuttered in institutions, like public hospitals and asylums, have largely been lost to history,” said Zuckerman.

She and other researchers on the team are actively working with the Smithsonian and researchers at other museums and universities to usher in new guidelines for teaching, research and care of individuals in these collections to produce scholarship that pays attention to the origins of these individuals, the social and historical factors that led to their inclusion in collections, and that recognizes and respects skeletal individuals as once living human beings.

Communications Biology is an open access journal from Nature Portfolio publishing high-quality research, reviews and commentary in all areas of the biological sciences. Research papers published by the journal represent significant advances bringing new biological insight to a specialized area of research.

Part of MSU’s College of Arts and Sciences, the Department of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures is online at The university’s Cobb Institute of Archaeology is online at  

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