Understanding epidemics in the Crimean War. A case of forensic autopsy on a Russian officer buried in Bucharest, Romania

Archaeological excavations in the Bucharest’s center, brought to light ten graves belonging to adult males, which according to the parade uniforms in which they were buried, were officers of the Russian Imperial Army. All these officers were wounded in the battle of Oltenitza (4th of November 1853), and were brought shortly afterwards to Bucharest for treatment. One of them, Grave 666, presented evidence of an elaborate exploratory autopsy, which according to historical sources was made at the nearby Colţea Hospital, by surgeons of the Russian army.
In order to identify the different stages of the autopsy, the implements used, and the purpose of this autopsy, macro- and microscopic analysis of the bone marks was conducted. The analysis showed that the preserved skeletal damage is related to disarticulation and dismemberment of the remains for removal and examination of the central nervous system. The overlying soft tissues of the calvaria and spine were removed with a scalpel-like instrument, the calvaria was removed with a thin bladed handsaw and a laminectomy was performed using a rachitome. A scalpel was then used to incise the spinal nerves and other connections of the spinal cord to the rest of the body, while the cut marks on the cranial base bones show the intention of taking the cranial contents and spinal cord en bloc.
This is the first case of an autopsy from a historical period identified in Romania, being more interesting as the skeleton doesn’t show signs of violence and the stages of autopsy are different than the current practice of the 19th century physicians. The way the autopsy was made, the pathological changes of the skeleton and the historical sources indicates a forensic autopsy whose purpose was to identify the effects of infectious diseases (congenital syphilis, cholera or typhus) over the central nervous system.

Authors:M. Constantinescu, A. Soficaru
Published: 2015
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