Dr. Molly Zuckerman (PhD, 2010), Associate Professor of Anthropology and Middle Eastern Cultures at Mississippi State University, has been making the news lately. After 7,000 bodies were found buried under the University of Mississippi Medical Center, she has been involved in exhuming and studying the skeletal remains and the asylum’s health records.
The cemetery was part of the Mississippi State Asylum, which was operational from 1855 to 1935, an era in which psychiatric asylums were common throughout the United States. Dr. Zuckerman has drawn conclusions about the health of the asylum patients from the archives of the asylum’s discharge records. These records are allowing Zuckerman and other historians and anthropologists in the Asylum Hill Research Consortium to form a database of individuals who were buried there. They have received many inquiries from family members about ancestors whom they think died at the asylum, and the Consortium’s hope is that people will be able to readily access the information.
Zuckerman also hopes to exhume more of the bodies in order to learn more about health and the diagnosis of madness in the late-nineteenth to early-twentieth centuries. The bones could provide information about the diseases, malnutrition, or living conditions of the patients. Zuckerman’s research focuses on the bio-social determinants of health inequalities. Her dissertation at Emory was an evolutionary, social, and ecological history of syphilis in England. Since syphilis was a common cause of insanity, Zuckerman’s expertise positions her well to conduct research at this site.
Several master’s students at Mississippi State have already analyzed the exhumed bones to make conclusions about health. One student used genetic sequencing to reconstruct oral bacteria from skeletons. Another student studied tooth enamel to make conclusions about nutritional deprivation and severe stress. Yet another student found evidence of pellagra, a disease caused by Vitamin B deficiency, in both asylum records and skeletons.
The stories of the patients buried at the Mississippi State Asylum are sure to unfold in the next few years, and we look forward to Dr. Zuckerman’s contributions.