This article relates to the embalming of human corpses and the preservation of anatomical specimens. It may be taken as supplementary to the article on Preserving, in the 2nd Series of 'Workshop Receipts.'
It has been remarked by Dr. B. W. Richardson that the ancient methods of embalming, when compared with the present, were singularly rough and laborious; yet in those ancient plans are to be found the principles of preservation carried out in perfection, rudely, but perfectly. The Egyptian embaliners commenced proceedings by extracting the brain of the dead person from the cavity of the skull, through the nostrils, by means of a hook, and by the pouring of infusion of certain drugs into the cavity of the skull. In these ways they removed the brain without disfiguring the head or face. The abdominal cavity was next opened with a sharp Ethiopic stone, and"the intestines were taken out.
After the cavity of the body was emptied of its natural contents, it was charged with powder of pure myrrh, cassia, and other perfumes, but not frankincense. The body was then sewn up, and covered with nitre and natron for 70 days. At the end of that period, the body was removed, washed, and closely wrapped in bandages of cotton dipped in a solution of gum arabic, which the Egyptians used as glue. It was now returned to the relations, who enclosed it in a case of wood. Pettigrew, who unrolled many mummies, is of opinion that, before the bandaging was carried out, the cuticle or scarf skin of the body was peeled off, the nails being carefully preserved. The nails were sometimes gilded; these nails and the hair were well preserved. A second and less expensive process was performed without emptying the cavities of the body at all. The intestinal cavity was injected with cedar oil, and the whole body was afterwards covered with nitre for 70 days, as in the first instance. The third and least expensive process was simpler still. The inside of the body was washed with a solution called syrmaea, and then the body was covered with natron for 70 days. The nature of syrmaea, or, as some spell it, surmia, is not known.
It was probably an aromatic solution.
Herodotus tells of another mode of preserving the bodies of the dead. He says of the Macrobian Ethiopians that they extracted the moisture from the bodies of the dead, and then, covering each body with a kind of plaster, they decorated the plaster with various colours, so as to imitate the dead as closely as possible. Then they enclosed the form in a hollow pillar of crystal, and placed it for 12 months in their houses. The process led to the story of preservation of dead in pillars of crystal.
Upon these ancient methods of embalming no marked improvements were made, as far as we know, until quite modern times, although there were great variations. The Guanches, who lived on the Canary Islands, washed the body for 4 days with water, anointed it afterwards with butter, and covered it with a powder composed of a dust of pine trees and brushwood, called "bres-sors," with pumice. Finally, they wrapped the body up in leather, and placed it in a cave. A specimen of a body preserved by this plan is in the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons.
Preservation of the dead by the simple process of drying, or desiccation, was practised by some communities. The Peruvians desiccated the bodies of their dead in sand. In Palermo, a convent of Capuchin Friars suspended numbers of desiccated bodies of their fellows in galleries. Captain Smythe, who visited the convent in 1624, reported that the bodies of 2000 had been so preserved in the convent. A few years ago some bodies that had been long preserved by desiccation were exhibited in London. In our modern days the process of desiccation has been very skilfully and practically applied for the temporary preservation of the dead. Falcony is the inventor of this plan, which consists in the temporary burial of the dead in a fine sawdust, charged with a salt which has a great affinity for water. Zinc sulphate is the salt that answers the purpose best. In cases where those who have died from infectious disease, cannot be at once buried, Falcony's plan serves an all-important hygienic purpose. It is also most practical in instances where deceased persons have to be removed some distance for burial, or where other circumstances demand a delay in interment.
The Burman priests used for embalming purposes methods which varied but little from those of the Egyptians. They removed the contents of the abdomen, charged the cavity with spices, and covering the body with wax or rosin, finally gilded it. In the monastery of St. Bernard, so well known to travellers, the bodies of dead persons who have died in the mountains from cold are preserved by 2 natural processes, (a) extreme cold and (6) slow loss of water - desiccation. These bodies are free of putrefactive changes, but they lose form and become shrunken from the loss of water.
If, now, we consider the lesson that has been taught by the embalmer's art, we learn that 3 distinct methods of preservation were thereby discovered - namely, preservation by the employment of antiseptic substances; by the plan of removing water - desiccation; by the action of cold. Up to the present day no new principle has been added to the art, it has been improved in its details, but on the same bases.
It was not until the time of the anatomist Ruysch, who was a contemporary of Peter the Great, that any important change of detail was introduced. Ruysch conceived the plan of injecting preservative fluids into the dead body by the blood vessels. The plan has been adopted for another purpose of late years, as if it were a new invention: it is not new at all. Ruysch carried the art of preserving by injection to such perfection that his specimens were the wonder of the time in which he lived.
William Hunter followed Ruysch in the plan of passing a preservative fluid into the dead body by the blood vessels.