Modern mummy, its maker give glimpse into Egypt’s past at Carnegie Science Center
For his ninth-grade science fair project, Ronn Wade mummified a rat.
Years before that, he used a pig’s heart — which is similar in structure, size and function to its human counterpart — to explain the circulatory system to a classroom full of stunned elementary school students.
In addition to being teacher’s pet, Wade is the son of a Baltimore mortician and funeral director.
“When I was young I had access to a lot of books on anatomy and embalming,” says Wade, who recently retired as director of the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s anatomical services division. “The books started off historically talking about the Egyptians and their preservation of bodies.”
In 1994, Wade and Egyptologist Bob Brier of Long Island University performed the first human mummification in 2,800 years using the same tools and techniques as the ancient Egyptians. They believed replicating the process would give modern society a better understanding of the past.
A 76-year-old Baltimore man who humbly donated his remains to science is now an international phenomenon.
The Mummy of the University of Maryland at Baltimore, or MUMAB, is on display at “Mummies of the World,” a traveling exhibition at the Carnegie Science Center through April 19. It includes 40 animal and human mummies and 85 related artifacts from across the globe, representing bodies preserved through natural and intentional methods.
Wade, whose wife is from Pittsburgh, visited the Carnegie Science Center earlier this month to check in on his old pal.
He stood by MUMAB’s temperature-controlled glass case and talked about halting the decay of soft tissues, including skin, muscle, internal organs, hair and nails.
Exhibit visitors, including children, crowded around him. When Wade, an affable 71-year-old, explains the logistics of the project, he sounds more like Mister Rogers than a scientist.
Since the ancient Egyptians didn’t leave a detailed how-to guide on the subject, Wade and Brier had to glean information from hieroglyphics and travel to Egypt for the ingredients. The “recipe” for making a mummy included: 100 yards of pure linen, 600 pounds of natron, frankincense and myrrh, oil of cedar and palm and natural resins.
The cadaver’s brain was removed through the nose and discarded. All of the internal organs, except for the heart, were extracted via an incision in the lower abdomen, cured and placed in canoptic jars (which science center guests also can see).
After lying in natron — a salt and baking soda compound — for 45 days, MUMAB was wrapped in multiple layers of linen. His feet and ankles are exposed, giving people a glimpse at the results.
It’s not a pretty sight. The skin is red and sinewy and draws comparisons to horror movie character Freddy Krueger. Observers rarely recoil in terror, but stare in wonder at the specimen.
“When we were installing the exhibition, you could tell the crew all have an emotional attachment to the mummies,” says Nicole Chynoweth, marketing, public relations and social media manager. “I was walking through one day and a crew member said, ‘Hey, did you meet my buddy, Freddy?’ and then proceeded to tell me all about him. The exhibition does a good job with treating people with respect and dignity. These were real people and they’re able to teach us, even in death.”
There are other mummies from the University of Maryland School of Medicine on display. The Burns Collection was created in the early 19th century by Scottish anatomist Allan Burns. It’s unknown how he preserved the bodies.
Wade and Brier’s work is highly documented — there’s even a feature about the MUMAB project on “The Mummy Returns” DVD. But don’t look for mummification to become a regular service at your neighborhood funeral home.
Other people have tried to duplicate the process using modern techniques, but no one can quite match the Egyptians’ methodical attention to detail.
“Between the 18th and 23rd dynasties it was an art form,” says Wade, who has visited Egypt more than 30 times. “Then it got pretty sloppy.”
The purpose of the MUMAB project is not only to educate people about mummification, but also to stress the importance of body donation. Willing one’s remains to science, as Wade and more than 70,000 other Maryland citizens plan to do, allows the dead to give future generations a better life.
MUMAB has served as a silent teacher for 25 years. Wade has a sarcophagus ready for him in Maryland.
“When the exhibition is over and all the research has been done, it’s time to let him rest in peace,” he says. “He’s made his contribution.”