California ophthalmologist has mummy case all wrapped up

The eyes were being saved for examination by an expert, and a UC Davis School of Medicine professor was up to the task.

By Damon Adams — Posted Nov. 21, 2005

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William C. Lloyd III, MD, and his colleagues joked about being Indiana Jones and dressing up like the movie explorer. After all, it's not every day that doctors get to examine the eyes of mummies.

But that's what Dr. Lloyd and other researchers did last month when the California ophthalmologist dissected and assessed the eyes of two North Chilean mummies who lived 750 and 1,000 years ago.

Most mummies have well-preserved eyes, and these orbs arrived via FedEx in a tiny yellow box once used for photo slides. Not exactly a "Raiders of the Lost Ark" image of buried tombs and ancient artifacts, but still a rare chance to explore a part of the past.

"One of [the eyes] looked like a Cheez Doodle," said Dr. Lloyd, a professor of ophthalmology and pathology at the University of California, Davis School of Medicine. Both were as light as a couple of potato chips, he said.

Huck Holz, MD, chief resident in the UC Davis Dept. of Ophthalmology and Vision Science, read an article in the May 16 New Yorker about Arthur Aufderheide, MD, a well-known paleopathologist and a professor of pathology and laboratory medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School, and brought it to Dr. Lloyd's attention. Dr. Aufderheide salvages mummy organs and tissues from around the world and was saving the eyes for the right expert. Dr. Lloyd convinced Dr. Aufderheide that he was the person for the job.

Dr. Lloyd didn't know what to expect when Dr. Aufderheide sent two mummy eyes, one from a 2-year-old boy who died 1,000 years ago, the other from a 23-year-old woman who died 750 years ago.

Dr. Lloyd's task was to check the two eyes for evidence of disease.

The dried eyes and surrounding tissue were rehydrated through a special formula and puffed up "like raviolis," Dr. Lloyd said. The specimens were sliced for microscopic viewing and stains were applied to highlight selected cellular characteristics.

With the microscope, Dr. Lloyd was able to identify specific structures of the eyes, though the woman's eye was in better shape than the boy's.

The woman's eye "looked as fresh and juicy as a lens taken from somebody up the hall who just had cataract surgery. The only difference was this one was 750 years old."

Dr. Lloyd's tests didn't show signs of eye diseases such as macular degeneration or glaucoma. Previous research determined that the boy -- one of the last members of the Tihuanacu culture -- had pneumonia and had inherited cystic disease in his liver. The woman -- who was buried in a seated position wearing an embroidered wool shirt, sandals and a head bandana -- was known to have pneumonia, lice, bad teeth and osteoporosis.

This was Dr. Lloyd's first foray into mummified eyes, but he hopes to explore other mummies optically and look for trends in diseases that afflicted civilizations many years ago -- a modern-day Indiana Jones for the eyes.

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