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Zuckerman, a member of the MSU research team featured in a prestigious scientific journal, is working to redefine the use of skeletons

Contact person: Sarah Nicolas

Molly Zuckerman (photo OPA)

STARKVILLE, Mississippi—Research by Molly Zuckerman, a professor in the Department of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures at Mississippi State, is featured in Communications Biology—a division of Nature—as part of a multi- institutional and interdisciplinary questioning the perspective of using human remains as objects of scientific study and, instead, using them as a way to reconstruct unique experiences, circumstances and places in the story.

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

Funded by the National Science Foundation, the University of Oklahoma and the Smithsonian Institution, the interdisciplinary investigation explores the cause of death and the social, political and economic circumstances surrounding the death of the “St. Louis Individual”—referred to as St. LI—a 23-year-old black or African American man who died in 1930s St. Louis, Mo. Findings 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 housed in the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution. The Terry Collection includes approximately 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 in universities and museums around the world and have long been considered important for teaching and researching human health and disease in medicine and anthropology.

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

According to lead researcher and lead author of the paper Rita Austin, a postdoctoral researcher at the Oslo Museum of Natural History, “Combining DNA information preserved in calcified dental plaque, or tartar, on the teeth of St. LI with historical records that contextualize their lives, and the information about their overall health gleaned from their skeletons has given us extraordinary insight into their lives and how racism, poverty and violence in the years 1930 in St. Louis, Missouri shaped this person’s life.

Dental calculus studied at St.LI revealed 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 in humans in the past, especially for the poor, the elderly and other marginalized communities living in increasingly crowded and cramped cities of the medieval period to the industrial revolution,” Zuckerman said. , a co-PI on the project.

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

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, researching, and caring for 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 a Nature Portfolio open-access journal that publishes high-quality research, reviews, and commentary in all areas of the biological sciences. The research articles published by the journal represent significant advances bringing new biological knowledge to a specialized field 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 Archeology is online at

MSU is the main university in Mississippi, available online at