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September / October 2004

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UMaine Today Magazine


Evidence of an early autopsy

Skull Cap
A side view of the skull cap shows
a standard autopsy cut around
the cranium.

Links Related to this Story

In his 1613 book Les Voyages, geographer and cartographer Samuel Champlain documented how the first French settlement in North America was established nine years earlier on a 6.5-acre island in the St. Croix River that now divides the United States and Canada. His account has graphic description of the desperate plight of 79 French gentlemen, sailors and artisans who struggled to stay alive during that first unusually harsh winter in 1604.

Champlain provided first-hand clinical accounts of the symptoms of scurvy, malnutrition and exposure that claimed the lives of nearly half the men. He also gave what medical historians have long considered to be descriptions of the first autopsies performed in North America.

Forensic anthropologists now have the first skeletal evidence of one of those early autopsies. The skull of a man in his late teens buried on St. Croix Island exhibits a standard autopsy cut around the cranium. Champlain described dissections of body parts to "determine the cause of their illness." In many cases, wrote Champlain, "it was found that the interior parts were diseased."

The skull was discovered during fieldwork on the island in summer 2003. At that time, the graves there were excavated to thoroughly study the bones and gather data on the ages, nutritional status and pathological conditions of the colonists.

In 1969, the National Park Service had some of the bones excavated from 23 graves on the island. Forensic fieldwork last year included examination of two other burial sites. Before this year's 400th anniversary observance of the 1604 settlement, all the remains were reinterred in cooperation with the Wabanaki — the tribes of Maine and several of the First Nations of Canada — and Canadian, French and U.S. governments.

The fieldwork, which also involved returning the first bones to their right graves, was headed by National Park Service archaeologist Steve Pendery, and included forensic anthropologists Thomas Crist of Utica College and Marcella Sorg of the University of Maine's Margaret Chase Smith Center for Public Policy and Maine Office of Chief Medical Examiner.

Findings on the St. Croix autopsy were presented earlier this year at the American Academy of Forensic Sciences annual meeting in Dallas, Texas. They included 3-D CT scan images by Mt. Desert Island Hospital radiologist John Benson, who assisted in the forensic analysis. The CT scan data document pathological conditions and could help digitally reconstruct facial features.

Champlain noted that "surgeons were unable to treat themselves so as not to suffer the same fate as the others." That means it's possible that the men who performed the autopsy were buried next to the corpses they studied, says Sorg, "having unknowingly established a landmark in medical history in the midst of their tragedy."

In the name of leadership

A $2.85 million donation to the University of Maine Foundation will advance the William S. Cohen Center for International Policy and Commerce.

With the funding, the center in the College of Business, Public Policy and Health will hire its first director and enhance its role in the curriculum, research and public engagement.

The center was established in 1997 with a $100,000 gift from Cohen when he left the U.S. Senate. Since then, it has been supported by $1.3 million in an endowment and other funds. Among the center's presentations is UMaine's annual William S. Cohen Lecture.
The anonymous gift, in the form of six charitable lead trusts, will produce income for the Cohen Center in annual installments, beginning later this year. Two-thirds of that income will be used to support the current needs of the Cohen Center; the remainder will be added to the already established Cohen Center endowment in the foundation.

The Cohen Center is an important part of the college's activities and "a cornerstone of our future," says Daniel Innis, dean of the College of Business, Public Policy and Health. "The study of international policy as it relates to business is a fundamental element of our business curriculum."

Silence isn't golden

The University of Maine Center on Aging is piloting a program to help detect and prevent elder abuse.

With the help of a $200,000 grant from the Maine Health Access Foundation, medical personnel in doctors' offices in two counties will screen elderly patients using a short questionnaire. The hope is to identify actual and potential abuse of seniors at the early stages, according to Leah Ruffin, who directs the Maine Partners for Elder Protection Project.

According to the Center on Aging, 84 percent of elder abuse is never reported.

"In some cases, we're asking elders to acknowledge for the first time that someone is mistreating them," says Center on Aging Director Lenard Kaye. "Their health is at risk. Their housing may be at risk. They're losing friends and family. To report someone subjecting them to abusive behavior risks taking away one of the few people in their lives."

In the past, many physicians have focused on a patient's immediate health condition, Ruffin says. Physicians working with the Maine Partners for Elder Protection Project will look at the overall social aspect of medicine, as well as physical health.

Insight Lite: Best mudslinging

Today, sound bites have replaced traditional presidential campaign slogans. But in past elections, slogans were the attack ads of their day. Here are four favorites of UMaine American history graduate student Tom McCord:

1908: Republican William Howard Taft was famous for his girth, and William Jennings Bryan was the Democrats' nominee for the third time. "330 Pounds — Not Electoral Votes," cried Bryan supporters. Opponents retorted: "Vote for Taft this time — you can vote for Bryan any time."

1940: Franklin D. Roosevelt broke precedent and sought a third term
despite a challenge from GOP utility executive Wendell Willkie. "Two Good Terms Deserve Another" was the Democrats' argument; "No Third Termites" was on GOP campaign buttons.

1948: Nobody thought Harry S. Truman could win election in his own right against a challenge by Republican Thomas E. Dewey.

"To Err is Truman," was a GOP slogan, but after Truman's surprise win, nobody ever forgot "Give ‘em hell, Harry."

1964: Unlike Truman, incumbent Lyndon B. Johnson looked solid, especially against the supposedly trigger-happy conservative Barry Goldwater. Goldwater backers loved to say, "In your heart, you know he's right." But Johnson fans fired back: "In your guts, you know he's nuts."

Hold the anchovies

A research team led by three University of Maine scientists is using fish bones from an archaeological site in Peru to describe the timing of Pacific Ocean climate cycles linked to El Niño. The report provides new evidence for a theory that biological cycles in the world's oceans reflect subtle changes in climate.

The research, published in the scientific journal Quaternary Research, focuses on Lo Demás, a specialized processing site where fish were gutted and hung to dry.

With data gleaned from excavations in the ancient village just south of modern-day Lima, the researchers reported that a shift from anchovy to sardine abundance occurred at about 1500 A.D. Evidence for a climate shift at about the same time is contained in annual snowfall rates recorded in Andean glacial ice cores. Those cores show that the warm phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation climate cycle contributes to lower snowfall rates. A reduction in anchovies and an increase in sardines also occur in those phases.
" The rare combination of location, high density of fish bones and good chronological control make this an excellent site to study Pacific Ocean climate change," says Dan Sandweiss, the lead author on the Quaternary Research paper.

UMaine President Peter Hoff steps down after seven years

Seven years after he took the helm of Maine's flagship public university, President Peter Hoff resigned in July. A presidential search is expected to begin this fall.

Hoff, the longest-serving UMaine president in almost 40 years, was appointed to a five-year position as University of Maine System Professor, where he will work as a scholar and researcher on higher education.

University of Maine System Chancellor Joseph Westphal named Robert Kennedy, executive vice president and provost since 2000, as interim president.

Molecular biophysics research gets a new home

Throughout history, new imaging capabilities — from the first 17th-century light microscopes to the latest MRIs and electron microscopes — have opened new worlds in biomedical research. But today, with such breakthroughs as the sequencing of human and mouse genomes, researchers need nanoscale imaging technologies to explore the structure and function of genes and chromosomes.

The Institute for Molecular Biophysics (IMB) was created to develop and deploy the biological imaging technologies of the future. The interdisciplinary program brings together expertise in biophysics and engineering at the University of Maine, cell biology at the Maine Medical Center Research Institute in Scarborough, Maine, and genetics and genomics at Jackson Laboratory, Bar Harbor, Maine.

This past May, IMB celebrated a milestone with the opening of its new 3,400-square-foot research facility at Jackson Laboratory. IMB's initial funding was provided by the National Science Foundation's EPSCoR program.

" The IMB is an interdisciplinary leap into the future," says Barbara Knowles of Jackson Lab, who co-directs the institute with UMaine's Michael Grunze. "It is the forum for the integration of newly developed instrumentation that will allow the application of optical physics and nanotechnology to genome structure. The ultimate goal is to understand precisely how genes control both normal development, and human diseases and disorders."

A sense of the '40s

World-renowned poets and scholars involved in the creation and study of poetry were at the University of Maine this summer for one of the largest conferences devoted to the genre.

" Poetries of the 1940s, American and International" drew participants from nine countries and the United States for five days of lectures, readings and panels. It was the 12th such conference organized by UMaine's National Poetry Foundation.

The conference focused on an era of radical change in American life, says poet and literary scholar Burt Hatlen, a UMaine professor of English and director of the National Poetry Foundation. "The United States emerged from the war as the richest and most powerful nation on Earth, but many poets felt deeply uneasy about the new role they saw America playing in the postwar period, especially the increasing influence of the military on American society."

The 1940s was a time of experimental and adventurous musical and literary subcultures, where seeds of the '50s beat generation and '60s counterculture were planted, Hatlen says. The tension and turmoil of the times is captured in the poetry in America and around the world.

Absence and abundance

If there's a silver lining to the sea urchin decline along the Maine coast, it may be the increased abundance of a commercially important type of seaweed.

With fewer of the spiny creatures grazing in coastal waters, a dark purple, edible seaweed known as Irish moss, or Chondrus crispus, has spread like dandelions in spring.

With a $10,000 Maine Technology Institute seed grant, FMC BioPolymer in Rockland is working with University of Maine scientists to determine just how much Irish moss has expanded and how it can be sustainably harvested. The research may lead to new harvesting methods and new jobs.


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