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Release: Sept. 20, 2000

UI professor wins grant for preservation of human skeleton collection

IOWA CITY, Iowa -- A grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) will provide funding for the preservation and curation of a large collection of human skeletal remains, housed at the University of Iowa. Robert Franciscus, an assistant professor of anthropology and the lead researcher on this project, said the grant is the first step in what will be a years-long process to make the University of Iowa-Stanford Collection accessible to researchers. It is the third-largest collection of documented, non-archaeologically derived human remains in the United States.

The grant provides $105,000 over the next two years to be used primarily for the cleaning and cataloging of the entire collection. Franciscus and two collaborators will take a complete inventory of the bones and begin matching the written records that exist with the skeletons they catalog.

"These are the remains of people who lived prior to major improvements in modern health care practices, including the advent of antibiotics, the widespread use of fluoride, and the availability of vitamin supplements and other nutritional improvements," Franciscus said. This allows researchers to make better comparisons with records of early humans.

"This collection also adds significantly to the range of regional variability represented in U.S. skeletal collections since it is the only major collection deriving from the West Coast, and specifically from the cosmopolitan area surrounding San Francisco with its tremendous ethnic variation," he said.

The collection includes the associated skeletons of nearly 1,100 individuals amassed by the Stanford University Medical School in the early 1900s for use in its anatomy classes. After a shift in teaching and research focus away from the whole body or oganismal level to a more cell-based perspective, the skeletons were stored in large flour sacks in the basement of a condemned building at Stanford until Franciscus, who was then teaching at Stanford, learned about them.

He started using some of the skeletons in osteology and human evolutionary anatomy classes he taught in Stanford's anthropology department, and also began pursuing various avenues to bring the collection out of the basement and into the research arena.

When he accepted a position with the UI's anthropology department in 1998, he arranged for the collection to be formally transferred and housed here. The collection now belongs to the UI and it is permanently stored at the Office of the State Archaeologist (OSA) on the UI campus. State Archaeologist William Green and OSA staff member Shirley J. Schermer, are collaborating with Franciscus.

"This collection is invaluable," Franciscus said. "Frozen in time you have this capsule of what people were living like and what they were doing during that era. Moreover, the collection has undergone only minimal handling and processing since it was first systematically collected which greatly enhances the possibility of extracting and analyzing undamaged and uncontaminated DNA from the bones. The possibilities are endless for discovering new information in anthropology, medicine, and any number of other disciplines."