Monday, June 15, 2015

Medical Mondays: Hello Mummy! (Corpse Decomposition, Part 2)


Boy, it's been a while since I did a Medical Mondays. A few days ago, I received a question on Facebook that prompted me to revive the blog, Frankenstein-like, with a zap of inspiration.

For those of you who are new to my blog or Medical Mondays, here's the short of it. I'm a doctor of Internal Medicine with a background in biology and neuroendocrine research. When I started writing fiction back in 2009, I started blogging but didn't know what to blog about. After all, everyone had a writing journey story to tell. What did I have to add to the mix?

Well, it turned out that I was doing a too-good job of keeping my medical career and my creative side completely separate. I realized, hey, I have a way to give back to the writing community.

I can do medical consults. For free. 

So I told my writer friends I'd help answer their fictional medical questions to help them make their stories more accurate, or at least find the right diagnosis or situation to fit their plot needs. But sometimes, I'd just blog about interesting science or biological randomness just to spur imaginations. (in fact, it was one of my own posts that gave me the idea for the main character in CONTROL.) And voila, Medical Mondays was born.

Since then, I've been happy to help out lots of authors, some of whom were my blogging buddies way back when, like Theresa Milstein, Angela Felstead (this is her question!), Stina Lindenblatt.

I've also consulted with newer friends, including Elle Cosimano (Nearly Gone), C.J. Flood (Infinite Sky), Mindy McGinnis (A Madness So Discreet), Megan Miranda, Tara Sullivan (The Bitter Side of Sweet), Emma Pass, Sarah Fine, Justina Ireland, and more but I'm forgetting the whole list!

So what questions did I get? Take a glance at the tab up yonder and see what I've blogged about before. :)

So here's today's question: Are there body parts that would keep for centuries and not rot? 

*cracks knuckles*

*hopes that readers have a strong stomach*

So a few years ago I blogged about corpse decomposition and what happens under relatively normal circumstances, including which body parts decompose the fastest and slowest. Sometimes, under ridiculously good conditions, it can decay super fast (if you have a strong stomach, check out this video of a pig decomposing underwater. Yep, they videotaped the whole thing and it's so utterly gross and I couldn't look away while gagging quietly).

Today, we'll talk about why things might slow down and be preserved for longer than expected. Consider this part deux.

So. Why would a human body NOT decompose? 

1. Lack of moisture. Like in the poor pig demonstration above, moisture is decomposition's friend. It allows a good environment for bacteria to go to work dissolving a corpse. Without it, the body turns into (forgive me) a sort of human jerky. Bacteria have a lot of trouble breaking down desiccated flesh (which is why jerky is so good for camping, since it won't rot easily. I am sorry jerky lovers, but you are eating mummified food. Yep.)

The Egyptians used to augment the dryness of the environment when creating mummies by using natron--a drying salt found locally that was stuffed into and packed around corpses to dry them out.

Other famous mummies include the Saltmen, who accidentally died in salt mines in Iran and were found 2200 years later, complete with intact pork tapeworm infections.

2. Temperature. Most of us are lucky to have the brilliant technology of the refrigerator and freezer at our beck and call. Not only do they keep food fresh longer, they are also fantastic for mummification. (Lydia is not a serial killer. Please repeat this. The only thing I mummify in my fridge is long-forgotten Laughing Cow cheese.)

There are a lot of mummies found due to their being pretty much flash-frozen and sort of freeze-dried upon death. These include the famous mummies of the Inca and the 500 year old Greenland Qilakitsoz mummies.

3. Acidity. In the fight against decomposition, a low pH is good. We all know that acid is great at preserving. Hello pickles.

The Bog men are famous for their startingly well-preserved bodies. Tollund Man is one of the most famous. In the peat bog, the lack of oxygen, cold temperatures, and high acidity (despite the moist environment) could even preserve facial expressions.

4. Chemical Preservation. So this sort of includes the embalming practices of ancient Egypt and numerous other cultures, but it also includes the more modern methods of using preservatives like formaldehyde to embalm corpses. Sometimes brandy works great! (Vice Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson). In other circumstances, people have asked to have their body parts preserved and mounted, doll-like and thoughtfully arranged, for visitors (Jeremy Benthem).

More recently, the plastination of bodies has made its rounds on display around the world and as a means of academic anatomical study. (I can't help but mention that there was a questioning of the ethical issues surrounding these display exhibitions: see this NPR article.)

So there you go. If you need body parts in your novel to last a LONG time, use some of these methods above to pickle, freeze, or dry out your corpse in question.

Fun times, people. Fun times. This is what you get for hanging out with writers.

And sorry to make your stomachs churn!


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

So wrap them in salt and dump them in your freezer!
Will check out some of the links, but pass on watching the pig decompose.

Heather said...

Brilliant, as always my dear. I'm bookmarking this info to use in my writing at a later date. SO glad Medical Mondays are back! We missed you!

Lorelei Bell said...

Oh, how I've always enjoyed these posts!

I recall reading somewhere about "Bog Man". Probably in an old book somewhere.

I've had to star this for my favorites. It may come in handy someday... uh for a book, of course.

Lorelei Bell said...

Oh, how I've always enjoyed these posts!

I recall reading somewhere about "Bog Man". Probably in an old book somewhere.

I've had to star this for my favorites. It may come in handy someday... uh for a book, of course.

Deb Salisbury said...

Hooray for Medical Mondays! I was just wishing you would bring them back. Plus I need to know more about decomposition. :-)

Lydia Kang said...

Hey Deb! Thanks for stopping by! (hugs)

Hi Lorelei, yes, the Bog Man is such an interesting example of mummies that aren't anything like the Egyptian ones. Keep up that research. :)

Hey Heather, yep, going to do some more of these. Keep an eye out, and thanks for your support!

Hey Alex! *fist bump*

Jemi Fraser said...

Fascinating stuff - but I'm passing one the pig too :)

J E Oneil said...

I'm always glad to see Medical Mondays make a return. Although this is pretty gross subject matter. I did not know about the acidity thing. It might make a good bit for a story someday.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Fascinating! I am thrilled to see Medical Mondays come back! And WHO wanted his body parts mounted for display? Off to click that link ...

Lydia Kang said...

Jemi--I don't blame you. ;)

JE, glad to be back! It's all good for filing away for another story...

Dianne--HE did!

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