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With retirement, famous Duluth scientist has new mission

Now 86, Dr. Arthur Aufderheide has spent half his career surrounded by death: its scent, look and feel. His work, and much of his personal travel, has been driven by "a thrill that comes in getting close." Aufderheide, a paleopathologist at the U...

Dr. Aufderheide
Dr. Arthur Aufderheide poses in his office in a University of Minnesota Duluth research laboratory. He holds a drawer of dried specimens, or mummy parts, that he has collected from all over the world. Amanda Hansmeyer / ahans@duluthnews.com
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Now 86, Dr. Arthur Aufderheide has spent half his career surrounded by death: its scent, look and feel.

His work, and much of his personal travel, has been driven by "a thrill that comes in getting close."

Aufderheide, a paleopathologist at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Duluth, retires this month after 36 years with the school. The internationally known doctor is a superstar in the field of paleopathology, or the study of mummies and disease.

His travels have taken him to every continent but one and they have led to encounters with polar bears in the Arctic, looted tombs in Egypt and the remains of members of the Medici family in Florence, Italy.

"My contribution to the field in general was to make other people aware that ... there is medical and anthropological information in mummies" -- even thousands of years later, he said.

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He began building a database of mummies while in his 50s and has the largest collection in the world of mummy remains, with between 5,000 and 6,000 specimens.

His motivation? The "attraction of the unknown."

He gives credit to Marc Armand Ruffer for developing the science of paleopathology in the early 20th century, but said that between 1917 when Ruffer died and the 1970s, no research of that kind was documented.

Aufderheide grew up in New Ulm, Minn., and graduated from the University of Minnesota. He was a pathologist at St. Mary's Hospital for several years before joining the medical school in its beginning stages. He has been an interim dean and a professor in its pathology department, known for giving students extra help on Sundays.

He also has contributed five books, with one to be published this spring. The book must be self-published, he said, because publishers balked at his expensive-to-produce high resolution photos. Aufderheide's 2003 "The Scientific Study of Mummies" is the standard guidebook to paleopathology. He invested several thousand dollars in the new book, called "Overmodeled Skulls."

"It's an exotic topic of great interest to half a dozen people besides Mom and Dad," he said, displaying the humility for which he's known.

"He is a Renaissance man well beyond being a pathologist," said Dr. Geoffrey Witrak, a pathologist with SMDC Health System whom Aufderheide recruited years ago for the medical school. "People seek to be with him to absorb his wisdom and hear his stories ... but he never strives to be heard."

When pressed to talk about an important career discovery and what it has meant to medical research, Aufderheide said, "Let me give you a lecture."

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Paleopathology is a basic science -- aimed at building a database of knowledge -- rather than an applied science, which seeks to put that knowledge to use, he said. His work allows scientists to reconstruct the ways diseases behaved in antiquity. He has traced one fatal modern South American disease, Chagas disease, back 9,000 years, and the knowledge recovered from that research can be helpful in controlling the disease today, he said.

His work on the Medici family involved finding out whether any of them died from malaria. Flooding of Florence's Arno River in the 1960s introduced bacteria into their tombs, and the project to see if written history about causes of death matched 500-year-old autopsies couldn't be completed without more funding.

"There are a lot of blind alleys," he said. "The work can be frustrating."

His wife, Mary, 86, accompanied him on most of his trips abroad, where her mastery of foreign languages warmed curators to the couple and allowed access to tombs.

"Mary opened all the doors for me," he said. "She wasn't deeply interested in the science but she helped. It was dirty, filthy work; there was the scent of death. ... She put up with it."

Mary Auferderheide, a nurse, said she and her husband were a team, with Mary scraping bones and sealing samples into thousands of tiny bags. Her background gave her understanding of the diseases studied as they traversed the world.

They have three children and three grandchildren.

"It's been a wonderful life," she said, one that she expects to continue with Aufderheide's retirement.

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"We're always getting calls from places like Germany or Portugal, someone wanting an answer," she said. "This will always be our life."

Current projects involve determining whether malaria was introduced by the slave trade or if it was native to the Western Hemisphere. His work on Sicilian mummies last March will be included in a National Geographic story this winter.

"He has the energy of three men," Witrak said. "He leaves a legacy of what can be achieved with a curious mind and an energetic spirit. Art didn't waste any significant amount of time on the negatives of life. Those are teaching points to all of us."

Duluth physician and medical school faculty member Alan Johns was in the Duluth medical school's first class, and was taught by Aufderheide.

"I was there for his first lecture, and I got there at the end of his last lecture a few weeks ago," he said. "His last lecture was just as enthusiastic."

Aufderheide's collection of assorted ribs, fingers, livers, lungs and bowels from Peru to Cairo will remain in his UMD office for two more years while he continues his research. After that, what will become of it is unknown.

"No one has died leaving a pile of money for mummy research," said Aufderheide, who has paid for his research with his retirement fund and has started, with Mary, a scholarship fund for the medical school.

The information that lies within Aufderheide's labyrinth-like basement collection is enough for years of research and more books, Aufderheide said, which he plans to write.

"I think Art would be delighted to find a budding young paleopathologist who would be excited about having that collection," Witrak said.

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