Evidence of autopsy done in 1600s discovered

Today's scientists used modern technology to determine the French colonist died from scurvy and exposure.

By Damon Adams — Posted Dec. 18, 2006

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The French settlers struggled to endure the severe winter of 1604-05 on an island off what is now Maine. Everything but the wine froze, and they had to drink melted snow and eat only salt meat and vegetables, leaving them with little strength.

Of the 79 colonists, 35 died on St. Croix Island. Hoping to figure out what killed the men, the settlement's barber-surgeons cut open some of the bodies.

More than 400 years later, forensic pathologists have analyzed one autopsied skull and say it is the earliest confirmed evidence of a European autopsy found in North America.

"Medicine was fairly crude at the time. [Bloodletting] was a big part of what was considered to be medical practice back then," said Thomas Crist, PhD, a forensic anthropologist and associate professor at Utica College in New York. The discovery was featured last month on the Discovery Health Channel series "Skeleton Stories." "What they might have seen in the brain, we're not sure."

Archaeologists excavated graves on St. Croix in 1969. In June 2003, when the National Park Service decided to rebury the remains, one team member noticed cuts on one of the skulls.

A joint American-Canadian team of forensic anthropologists analyzed the skull, likely of a male 18 or 19 years old, and determined that a barber-surgeon cut through it and removed the top of the head to expose the brain after the teen died. Following the autopsy, the surgeon put the skull cap back before the man was buried.

"This was really one of the first early steps to try to determine the death of an individual," Dr. Crist said.

In his memoirs, published in 1613, settler Samuel de Champlain wrote that he ordered a barber-surgeon to open several colonists who died to determine the cause of their illness. "We could find no remedy with which to cure these maladies," Champlain wrote. "Our surgeons were unable to treat themselves so as not to suffer the same fate as the others."

Modern skeletal analysis showed the settlers died of scurvy and exposure. In the summer of 1605, Champlain, French nobleman and fur merchant Pierre Dugua and the others fled the island settlement and moved the colony to present-day Nova Scotia.

There is a written account that French explorer Jacques Cartier ordered an autopsy in 1536 in what is now Quebec, but there is no skeletal evidence, Dr. Crist said. Autopsies became more common in the 1700s in Scotland, England and France, he said. In the mid-1700s, a Pennsylvania medical school began using the practice to teach students.

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