North Tustin radiologists explore the past preserved in mummies

Baby Johannes died before his first birthday, but is leaving his mark on the world nonetheless. Photo by Tony Richards

By Tina Richards

Veronica Orlovits was transported to Orange County Global Medical Center last month, where she received a full-body CT scan – although she’s been dead for 200 years.

Veronica and her infant son Johannes were the most recent of some 300 mummies scanned by Drs. James and Linda Sutherland. The Sutherlands, 30-year residents of Lemon Heights, are both radiologists who have combined the latest CT scan technology with ancient, and more recent history, to discover how living and aging affected our ancestors.

They  are  specifically  looking  for atherosclerosis, a disease in which plaque builds up inside the arteries.  And they’re finding it.  “We see atherosclerosis (AS) in about 30 percent of the mummies we’ve scanned,” Linda Sutherland reports.  “That’s about the same frequency you find in people today.”  Their research includes mummies from Egypt, Peru, the American Southwest and the Aleutian Islands.  The individuals scanned represent a variety of cultures, diets, lifestyles and social status.  The 30 percent prevalence rate of AS covers all of them – from priests to peasants.

“That  tells  us,”  James  Sutherland says, “that while there are factors that contribute to AS – diet, exercise, blood pressure – it may be something that happens when we age. Yes, you can take steps to slow it down, but our research tells us that it is likely linked to genetics.”

Slicing through history

The couple got involved in mummy research in 2005, when an exhibit at the Bowers Museum converged with increasingly more sophisticated Computer Tomography (CT). Both doctors were fellows at the Bowers, and their work in radiology was known to the museum’s executive director.

“CT technology had gotten to the point where the equipment could scan an entire body,” Linda Sutherland re-calls. “Bowers was exhibiting  six Egyptian mummies, and the museum director asked if we’d be interested in scanning them.”

Using a donated scanner housed in a semi truck set up in the Bowers’ parking lot, the Sutherlands scanned a baby, a 12-year-old, a male teenager and three adults. “It was very different from scanning living people,” Linda Sutherland says.  “For one thing, you don’t have to worry about radiation exposure.”

In addition to medical data, the research team discovered an amulet wrapped inside one of the mummies.  “It was the Eye of Horus,” she notes, “meaning that the mummy had been a priest.  The whole experience was a great adventure.”

The Sutherlands now belong to an international group called the Horus Research Study Team.  Members represent a variety of medical and technical disciplines, and their primary goal is to document the instances of AS in past cultures.  The group is essentially learning about life in ancient times from the people who lived it.

The not-so-missing link

The North Tustin husband/wife team got involved in Horus in 2009.  A group of researchers had scanned an Egyptian priest in Cairo and published a paper on its findings.  James Sutherland saw it, and realized one of the authors was someone he knew from medical school.

Several phone calls later, the couple was invited to join the Horus team.

They have since traveled the world to discover the stories the mummified remains have to tell – from a 4,000-year-old Egyptian, to pre-Incan remains, to 30 great apes preserved in alcohol.  Yes, the apes are considered mummies.  “A mummy,” Linda Sutherland explains, “is any individual with preserved tissue. It doesn’t have to be wrapped. It can be preserved in ice, in a chemical, or through environmental conditions.”  And yes, they found signs of AS in the apes.

The Sutherlands' ties to the Bowers Museum are how they met Veronica and her son. Both are currently part of the museum’s Mummies of the World exhibit. Veronica is a 38-year-old mother from Hungary who perished during a tuberculosis epidemic. She was buried in a crypt beneath a church that was subsequently sealed off and forgotten. In 1994 the crypt was rediscovered and with it, the preserved remains of 255 people who had died in the 18th and 19th centuries.  They were mummified by a combination of consistent cool, dry air and the pine oil in the caskets that killed bacteria and fungus.

Vital statistics

The names of the individuals were inscribed on their coffins, and because the church kept comprehensive records of its congregants, researchers know who these people were, their relationships to one another, when they married, when children were born, and when they died.  Veronica, a miller’s wife, lost her four children and her first husband to the “white plague.”  She remarried, but died a year later in 1808.

Although much is already known about her, a nondestructive CT scan can provide physical information unattainable through written records.  Bowers asked the Sutherlands if they’d be interested in scanning Veronica and the child, and got permission from the Hungarian National History Museum to do so. Orange County Global Medical Center agreed to provide the equipment.

The scan itself takes just minutes, but analyzing the results takes longer.  “You don’t generally see anything during the initial scan,” James Sutherland reports. “You have to put all the slices together and study them.”

Although Linda Sutherland had been involved in much of the preparatory activities, a physical injury prevented her from being there for the actual scan. She has every intention, however, of presenting the results herself at a May press conference.

The Sutherlands will be scanning mummies in Mongolia this summer, and in Italy this fall.  Veronica and Johannes will remain on exhibit at the Bowers until September.