Adipocere

In which we meet Augustus Bozzi Granville and a light within.
Or “Mum’s the word.”


adipocere
The Old West was exciting, no doubt, but London, in 1825, was also a place to be. That year, Dr. Augustus Bozzi Granville gave a lecture at the Royal Society in which he detailed his findings in the unwrapping and dissection of a centuries-old Egyptian mummy. During the lecture, the Royal Hall was lit by candles made from a wax Granville had found within the mummy. He identified this wax as beeswax, mixed with bitumen, and he believed it indicated a method of embalming that had, until that moment, been lost. In the paper outlining his findings, Granville explained.
To have penetrated thus far, and to have lodged between closely adhering membraneous folds, this mixture must either have been injected quite warm into the cavity of the abdomen, or the body itself must have been plunged into a vessel containing a liquefied mixture of wax and bitumen, and there kept for some hours or days, over a gentle fire.
Previously, the unwrapping of mummies had exposed bodies that were dry and brittle, falling apart, no wax within, and discussions of embalming methods made no mention of steeping bodies in molten wax. With what he found within this mummy, Granville had to conclude that in order to embalm a body successfully, “it must be impregnated with bees wax,” and if he had stopped there he might be even more obscure than he is today, despite his many accomplishments, but Granville just went ahead and collected the wax from inside the mummy, made tapers of it, and lit up a lecture hall with its light, and I can’t help but wonder how these candles burned. Did they burn with a fine white flame like spermaceti or sugar-cane wax? Did they burn like beeswax? Were negative ions set forth to clean the air? Were the candles burned down to their sockets bringing luck to all pockets? Alas, all we can do is assume that the candles just burned, provided light, a little warmth, no big deal, and no one noticed anything odd, amiss, unusual; at least no one said anything that was recorded and passed down that I could find. Something like, Hey, wait a minute, what’s with these candles? Do they smell a little funny to you? Because, as it was discovered many years later, these candles burning at the Royal Hall during Granville’s lecture weren’t made of beeswax but most likely of adipocere, a wax “encountered in the decomposition of corpses in cemeteries.” That’s the description of adipocere from Warth, anyway, and upon reading that description I turned immediately to my Webster’s New World Dictionary just to make sure adipocere was a real thing. I found it wedged between the membranes of “adios” and “adipose”—
a fatty or waxy substance produced in decomposing dead bodies exposed to moisture
—and then I googled “adipocere” to see what that would dig up and found out that once adipocere, a wax found in decomposing bodies, had been made into candles by one Dr. A. B. Granville. And thus, I tumbled down the tunnel of love.

adipocere
Copper-plate illustration of mummy’s head
from Granville’s essay.
Granville eventually sold the remains of the mummy he had dissected to the British Museum where they were put in storage and remain in storage to be occasionally taken out and re-examined. In 2009 the Royal Society published a paper titled “Tuberculosis in Dr. Granville’s mummy: a molecular re-examination of the earliest known Egyptian mummy to be scientifically examined and given a medical diagnosis.” It contradicts, or, shall we say, offers alternative conclusions to Granville’s findings and, in the case of embalming method, the idea of beeswax being used to impregnate the body is pretty well tossed out.
… the process of mummification appears to have differed from the norm. Granville believed that after initial dehydration with natron, the main material used was bitumen, possibly mixed with beeswax, but an analysis of embalming residues from the mummy has found no traces of either substance …
Could Granville have scraped out every last trace of beeswax? Or was the wax he found inside the mummy not beeswax after all but, perhaps, a wax of a different origin? A wax from the body itself? Adipocere? Which apparently can be molded into candles that burn a lot like beeswax candles. I wonder: If Dr. Granville had known it was adipocere he was fiddling with, or even suspected such, would he still have made the candles? I think undoubtedly yes. He was an interesting man.

adipocere
Wax obtained from Granville’s mummy.
Photo from The British Museum.
Augustus Bozzi was born in 1873 in northern Italy, which at the time was controlled by Austria. He came to study medicine until, in an effort to avoid conscription into Napolean’s army, he embarked on travels that took him to Greece, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, The West Indies. He joined the British Navy as a surgeon, married an Englishwoman, and settled, in a way, in London. In accordance with his mother’s dying wish should he ever come to settle in England, he legally adopted the surname Granville, his maternal grandmother’s maiden name, his great-grandfather having migrated to Italy from Cornwall. Eventually, Dr. Granville practiced obstetrics, wrote papers, edited journals, and was an active member of the Royal Society. He spoke several languages, he continued to travel, he had wide and varied interests. Basically, he presents as a man who, when forced to leave home as a young man to avoid a prescriptive life, pursued all that he found curious and enlightening. He also experienced the prejudice of being an immigrant, a foreigner, but he was very much what we might call a social climber—he wanted to mix with the lords and ladies and did. In 1874, two years after his death, his autobiography was published. It is a two-volume work with an unequivocal title: “Autobiography of A. B. Granville, M.D., F.R.S.,—Being 88 Years of the Life of a Physician Who Practiced His Profession in Italy, Greece, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, The West Indies, Russia, Germany, France, and England. Edited, with a Brief Account of the Last Years of His Life, by His Youngest Daughter, Paulina B. Granville.” In it he does not hold back on the gifts of life, experience, language, curiosity, and an assuredly sure sense of self. He writes:
I am inclined to believe that the trite proverb of l’appétit vient en mangeant is equally applicable for the appetite of the mind for knowledge and inquiry, that it may get invigorated as much as the appetite of the stomach yearns for additional or more choice nutriment to sustain its strength. This I can assert on my own experience, that the more my mind worked to acquire fresh knowledge and assimilate it to itself, the more eager did I feel to discover, collect, and make my own, whatever other sources or objects of knowledge I could acquire. Such was the case with regard to the next object I seized upon as a fertile topic of investigation, on which, as a medical man, I might perchance be able to throw a clearer light than could be done by a mere literary or erudite or antiquarian investigator. I allude to the interesting subject of Egyptian mummies …
The story of the mummy, the beeswax, the tapers—and so much more—are right there in Granville’s own multitudinous words.
A young baronet, Sir Archibald Edmonstone, just returned in bad health from a long incursion into Egypt, applied to me for advice, and at the same time commenced a conversation on the subject of Alexandria, which we had both of us visited, branching off into an account of a visit he had paid to the kings’ tombs, where he had been able not only to penetrate into the mummy pits, but, a rare privilege, had purchased one of the best preserved specimens, judging from the exterior case, which was perfect both in material and painting. This he had brought home with him, and kept in his house in Wimpole Street, where I went to see it. I expressed my desire to examine the mummy after the removal of its external covering, and explained to my patient how deficient our knowledge was in regard to the process of mummification by the old Egyptians, arising from the fact that all the ancient naturalists and antiquaries who had investigated the matter in England, had in no one instance that I knew of found a specimen that consisted of anything better than mere bitumen and hard brittle bones, with little or no flesh. “Do you consider,” inquired the patient, “that a careful investigation of this mummy, which it is evident from the exterior case is that of a female, might be of advantage to science should it prove a well-preserved one?” “Such is my conviction,” was the answer. “Then you shall have the inside, and I will reserve and retain for myself the exterior case and its hieroglyphics.”

The case was in Savile Row the next day. On that day week my dining-room was open at one o’clock to some scientific and other friends, to witness the examination of the mummy. During the week I had had the case carefully opened, which proved to be made of sycamore wood an inch thick, whitewashed or plastered in its interior, with long ranges of hieroglyphic inscriptions painted in black characters. The body, enveloped in all its cloth wrappers, being taken out and deposited on a long table, was searched all over for papyri or amulets or any ornament, but nothing was discovered except a few segments of very slender glass tubing, tinted pale blue, and looking like enamel, and a few grains of wheat that looked as fresh as any grain of wheat of the last harvest. On the end of a white bandage extending across the waist were inscribed, in an inky pigment, certain characters, which Sir Gardiner Wilkinson, who was present, undertook to explain by-and-by. One or two of the characters had corroded and left a hole in the cloth. All the observations made during the examinations were carefully written down on the spot by one of my pupils, and served afterwards as materials for the composition of the extensive essay I read before the Royal Society, which is printed in the volume of the Transactions for the year 1825, where every important part of the essay is accompanied by a copper-plate illustration. I shall make no further observation on this matter, except to express in deliberate and explicit terms, firstly, that I claim in this laborious investigation to have demonstrated the fact of wax having been the ingredient which was successfully employed, not only to preserve the body from putrefaction, but also to keep the membranes as well as the ligaments in their supple condition, so that when the wax was discharged from them by the process of boiling in water, the soft parts came out with their natural structure, and in less than twenty-four hours underwent decomposition and putrefaction. To these facts antiquaries and such persons as are versed in the old Egyptian language, add the information that the Egyptian word corresponding to wax is “mum.” …

… The publication of this essay on mummies in the Transactions and other scientific journals led soon after to my being requested to deliver a lecture on the identical specimen. This I did with every requisite illustration by drawings, experiments, and the exhibition of all the parts of the mummy together, some of the wax obtained being manufactured into small tapers, which were lighted and burned during the lecture. This was delivered on one of the Friday evening meetings at the Royal Institution, and attracted general notice. …

… Within the last few years the preparations of my original mummy were purchased by the trustees of the British Museum, and placed in one of the glass cases in the Egyptian rooms of that establishment, though not displayed in the manner best adapted for the instruction or the amusement of the public. Some reasons for this anomalous mode of exhibiting these specimens were assigned to me by the very able and courteous curator of the department, which I doubt not are consistent with the rules and spirit of the place, though they failed to satisfy me. An additional ground of regret I experienced at this, as it may be called, suppression of the preparations of the original mummy is, that amongst them I had placed specimens of recent mummies prepared by myself with wax according to the Egyptian method, some legs and arms of still-born children, which from 1825 until the year in which I parted with the specimens—a period of nearly fifty years—had preserved intact their freshness, softness, complexion, and colour, although not enveloped by any bandage whatever. These specimens, like the rest, are shut up at present in a large case, a museum clausum, as some funny gentleman appertaining to the museum once said to me, in which the preparations may remain for an indefinite number of years without the means of ascertaining how far a practical illustration of the discovery of an ancient art propounded by a scientific man has turned out a reality or a myth. When I look back to the work I spontaneously took upon myself to perform unsolicited by anyone, and to the nature of the work itself, I fear that I must confess that the motives that induced me to undertake it were akin to that spirit of restless impatience which the good preceptors in my college early divulged to my parents, when they sent me home for my holidays with a very gratifying encomium of my intellectual progress somewhat damaged by an explicit lament over the listlessness of my temperament and my love of change. I was born to be a reformer! The right of the oldest and best confirmed establishment that evinced in my estimation any glaring error or abuse, any shortcoming, in fact, made me uneasy, and instantly the demon of revolt suggested the idea that it was my duty to have redressed whatever was wrong. And now, for example, I could not practise midwifery long in the metropolis without being struck by the disgraceful anomaly in the English law, which left the practice of that art entirely without legal or any other kind of regulation. …
And here, with all due reluctance, I cut off dear old Granville—mid paragraph, mind you—for at this point he goes on and on about the lack of respect for midwifery in England, the situation in Paris being so different, how he tried to change things, and then there’s a neat if not somewhat abrupt segue into a similar situation he found with account-keeping at the Board of Visitors of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. He took a great interest in that, too. Straightened it out. And I suppose this is how it almost gets lost that Granville has also told us, however briefly, of conducting his own experiments with embalming with beeswax, having tried the method with “some legs and arms of still-born children.”

Well. Even if Granville did incorrectly identify this wax we all harbor within, he seems well acquainted with and justly personifies an idea that we are all like candles, waiting to be lit; an idea that was set forth, well-explained and elaborated upon by another member of the Royal Society in the 1800s, Michael Faraday.


But why pester one with all this reasoning on the subject? Speak out! You have seen him spout; then declare what the spout is; can you not tell water from air? My dear sir, in this world it is not so easy to settle these plain things. I have ever found your plain things the knottiest of all. And as for this whale spout, you might almost stand in it, and yet be undecided as to what it is precisely.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick


References
An Essay on Egyptian Mummies; with observations on the art of embalming among the ancient Egyptians, A. B. Granville, Philosophical Transactions, 1825
The Chemistry and Technology of Waxes, Albin H. Warth
Tuberculosis in Dr Granville’s mummy: a molecular re-examination of the earliest known Egyptian mummy to be scientifically examined and given a medical diagnosis, Donoghue, et. al., Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 2009
British Museum, Collection online, human remains
Autobiography of A. B. Granville, Vol. II.
The Collection of Egyptian Mummies in the British Museum, John H. Taylor, 2015
Augustus Bozzi Granville (1783-1872): London physician-accoucheur and Italian patriot, Alex Sakula, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 1983

This page edited 1/16/2019.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

What a read! Thank you I’ve been searching all night for an article like this. I’m curious enough to find out for myself what these candles could’ve burned like... I’ll send you one (;