5 Questions You’d Never Think to Ask That Autopsies Answered

Cut a corpse open, and all is revealed
5 Questions You’d Never Think to Ask That Autopsies Answered

Autopsies are meant to answer two questions. One: Was this death murder? And two: Did the deceased celeb have any juicy details on their body we can gossip about? 

Wait, no. That’s a gross oversimplification (and we do mean gross; we’re talking about cutting open corpses here). Autopsies can also solve all kinds of other mysteries, like...

How Many Souls Do Twins Have?

The first ever autopsy recorded in the New World happened in 1533, in the place we now call the Dominican Republic. That July, a woman gave birth to conjoined twins she named Joana and Melchiora, who did not survive long. A priest offered to baptize the babies, postmortem. But how many baptisms were required here? You could say these were two separate children, or you can say they weren’t, since they were anything but separate.

The Church ordered an autopsy on the Bellestero twins to determine whether they had one soul or two. The autopsy revealed two sets of internal organs, and so, the Church concluded they had two souls. Apparently, the Church believed the soul is definitely located in organs but not located in the brain. Is the soul located in the gallbladder perhaps, or the pancreas? Recent research does not say; maybe some questions are outside the purview of science.

smoked "country style" pork ribs, which are the big meat steak like cuts

Dennis Brown

Maybe it’s in the ribs, which is why ribs are called soul food. 

Either way, Mr. Bellestero refused to pay for two baptisms. So, Joana and Melchiora, though conjoined in life, are separated in death, as only one was blessed and saved from the fires of hell. 

Is It Tasty?

Maybe you've heard of a body hack called the Valsalva maneuver. It involves trying to exhale while shutting all the usual passages from which air escapes, and it's useful for all kinds of stuff — from clearing a blocked ear to expelling illicit fake urine you have bottled and stored in your rectum. The maneuver is named for 17th-century scientist Antonio Maria Valsalva.

Valsalva was an anatomist, which is why lots of little obscure muscles and doodads within the body bear his name. Like most anatomists at the time, Valsalva obtained his knowledge by cutting up dead bodies. This was how, for example, he observed that the ear consists of three sections: the outer ear, the middle ear and the inner ear. We are all very lucky that he intuitively named these sections “outer,” “middle” and “inner,” rather than “Antonio,” “Maria” and “Valsalva,” which he no doubt considered doing.


Jasmin Chew

The ligament between the ear and head *is* named for Valsalva, however. 

But Valsalva was not so complacent to merely observe dead bodies with his eyes. He also employed that organ known as the tongue, to get a full sense of what the body is like. When he spotted some especially foul fluid, he sampled it and reported his findings. “Gangrenous pus does not taste good,” recorded Valsalva, “leaving the tongue tingling unpleasantly for the better part of the day.” 

Other scientists might have assumed as much from the awful smell, but Valsalva went the extra mile. If the man did not then report the taste of every single other part of the body, we assume that's just because he tried them all and found them unremarkably satisfactory.

Are Gay Brains Different?

Sexual orientation, in theory, should be detectable by some sort of physical evidence in the body, for the simple reason that everything about you should be detectable by some sort of physical evidence in the body. Even your personality traits and individual memories must be linked to something going on in neurons or whatever, if we have no part of ourselves other than our physical forms. 

3D medical animation still showing Gallbladder stones or Gallstones.

Scientific Animations

Even your soul was recently proven to be located in the gallbladder. 

In 1991, Simon LeVay of the Salk Institute lost a partner of 21 years to AIDS. He now ran a study comparing the brains of gay men who’d died of AIDS to straight men who’d died of AIDS, and comparing both to the brains of straight women. He observed one consistent difference: One cell group in the hypothalamus, called INAH3, had a nucleus that was roughly the same size in gay men and in women, but twice as big in straight men. 

These results made a lot of people very angry, for various contradictory reasons. And had LeVay considered all the potential shortcomings of his study? Maybe he’d only found a brain difference in people who like being penetrated, not people who are gay, had he thought of that? 

In fact, he had thought of that, and listed all such possibilities in the original study. Despite what people assumed, his findings made no assumptions about what causes sexual orientation or even if orientation is immutable. He just demonstrated that it’s observable (by pickling brain cells in alcohol after death), which should only be controversial if you thought all gay people were pretending. 

How Much Money Can We Make Off This?

For around a year, starting in 1835, P.T. Barnum exhibited a woman whom he called “George Washington’s mammy.” Joice Heth, said Barnum, had been the first person to dress the father of the country, had nursed him and taught him spirituals. If his story were true, that would make Heth 161 years old, far older than anyone else in recorded history. 

Many people thought he was lying, so when Heth died, Barnum said he aimed to prove the truth definitively. He would order an autopsy of the woman, and anyone could come witness it live — for a small entrance fee.

Poster advertising Joice Heth

J. Booth & Son

Corpses make great attractions. There’s one dead every minute. 

He held the autopsy at a saloon, where 1,500 people crowded in to see her. The doctor who conducted the autopsy announced that Heth had been around 80 years old when she died, which sounded like bad news to Barnum, but he didn’t care — the autopsy had netted him over $20,000, in today's money.

Later, confronted about lying about Heth, Barnum claimed that she really had been 161 years old, but the doctor had autopsied some other woman entirely. This would make him still guilty of lying to people for money, just of telling a different lie. On yet another occasion, he admitted to having made up the whole mammy story, compelling Heth to do what he said by giving her whiskey. To make her look older than she really was, he’d pulled out all her teeth, after getting her drunk. At least, that’s what he claimed that day. It wasn’t so much an admission as a story he got a paper to publish for the sake of publicity, so who knows how much of it was true. 

Which Corpse Inherits?

In 1992, authorities in Vienna thought it was time to check in on two elderly sisters, whom no one had heard from in a while. Let’s call them Liesl and Gretl. Police broke down the long-sealed door to their home and discovered that both of them were dead. They hadn’t each killed the other in a duel. It seemed that they’d both died of natural causes. The case was now the domain of estate lawyers, who needed to figure out which of the two lived longer. Whoever died first would have left their money to the other, while the other will have left their combined fortune to other, different heirs.

If pathologists examine someone who died yesterday, they can estimate the time of death through a traditional autopsy, checking for rigor mortis, decay, whether their watch conveniently stopped when the killer struck, etc. Liesel and Gretl both appeared to have been dead for some years. A normal autopsy couldn’t come up with any time of death more accurate than that. So, investigators turned to a more specialized method of investigation: carbon dating.

The physics of decay and origin of carbon 14 for the radiocarbon dating

Sgbeer/Wiki Commons

Like we said, these women were elderly. 

Carbon dating works by measuring the amount of the radioactive isotope carbon-14 in a sample. The amount of C-14 in the air has stayed roughly in equilibrium for thousands of years, with some atoms being created and some being destroyed by natural processes. Organic creatures take in carbon, including some amount of C-14, then after they die, that C-14 decays and is not replaced. Measure how much C-14 remains, and you can estimate how long ago the organic material was created.

Problem is, carbon dating isn't very precise at all. It’s a tool for dating archaeological artifacts to within roughly a century, not for finding the exact year anything happened. However, if you try to date any material created with the last 70 years or so, carbon dating suddenly becomes a whole lot more powerful thanks to something world-changing we humans came up with: nuclear bombs.

Famous color photograph of the "Trinity" shot, the first nuclear test explosion.

Jack W. Aeby

We set off these bombs to solve the sisters’ mystery, chiefly

Between 1955 and 1963, we detonated a whole lot of nuclear bombs in tests. Suddenly, the amount of C-14 in the atmosphere doubled. The extra C-14 is going away and will be back to normal levels in another 30 years or so, but for a little while, it’s given us the forensic science known as bomb-pulse dating. Rather than compare the slow, gradual centuries-long drop in a material’s C-14 against the constant level in the atmosphere, we compare the roughly stable years-long level of a material’s C-14 against the anomalously high but rapidly dropping level in the atmosphere.

Analyzing the sisters’ remains this way — a process involving DNA extraction, mass spectrometry and other sciencey stuff — investigators concluded that Liesel died no later than 1988, while Gretl had still been alive well into 1989. They had answered the question of which sister died first. As for why Gretl had continued going about her usual routine for a year while her sister's corpse lay in the apartment, the scientists hazarded no answer. 

Like we said, some questions are outside the purview of science.

Follow Ryan Menezes on Twitter for more stuff no one should see. 

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