International Leprosy Association -
History of Leprosy

International Leprosy Association -
History of Leprosy

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Vilhelm Møller-Christensen

Status Medical Researcher, Physician
Country Denmark

Notes

Vilhelm Møller-Christensen (1903 – 1988) was a Danish medical historian and paleopathologist who pioneered and developed the subject of leprosy osteoarcheology and, through this, made major contributions to the understanding of bone deformity in leprosy.

Møller-Christensen was born in Haslev, southern Zealand, Denmark. He attended medical school at the University of Copenhagen, graduating in 1928. His dissertation on the history of the forceps was published in 1938.

In 1944, while studying skeletons excavated from Aebelholt monastery, he observed one female skeleton with bone changes he could not identify. He suspected the changes were due to leprosy, and consulted Erik Waaler and Reider Melsom, physicians working at a leprosarium in Bergen, Norway, for their opinion. Through this interaction, Møller-Christensen became aware that information on bone changes in leprosy was scarce, and he therefore decided to search for a medieval cemetery attached to a leprosy hospital in order to conduct his own study of bone changes.

A leprosy hospital known as St George’s (Sankt Jørgens Spital) was supposed to have existed near Naestved, Zealand, but its location was unknown. In 1948, Møller-Christensen made many inquiries among local farmers as to whether they had ever found human bones in their fields (which caused some suspicion and alarm). He eventually met a farmer who had found several skeletons on his property, and was willing to allow Møller-Christensen to begin excavating the site immediately.

This was the site of St George’s Hospital, which Møller-Christensen would proceed to systematically excavate over the following twenty years. The cemetery included the remains of 750 people, many of which showed clear signs of leprosy. The foundations of a church were also discovered.

Beginning in 1953, Møller-Christensen published many papers on his findings from the St George’s cemetery, examining bone changes and performing comparisons with modern-day leprosy patients. His work established the presence of leprosy in medieval Denmark and made a major contribution to the description of leprosy in the Middle Ages, as well as helping to develop the modern understanding of bone changes in leprosy. He published many papers on both this particular aspect of leprosy and on the general history of leprosy.

Møller-Christensen presented some of his findings on bone changes at the 6th International Leprosy Congress in Madrid in 1953, bringing ten skeletons with him as part of his demonstration. His presentation sparked interest in the subject among other leprologists; many papers on maxillary changes in leprosy, in particular, were published in the following years. Michel Lechat was one of those impressed by Møller-Christensen’s work; he mentioned the story to Graham Greene, who included it in his novel A Burnt-Out Case.

In 1964, he was appointed Professor of Medical History at the Museum of Medical History (now the Medical Museion) at the University of Copenhagen. As the museum’s director, he developed an exhibition on leprosy, performed administrative work, and raised funds that enabled the museum to be opened to the public in 1969. He retired in 1973, at the age of 70.

The remains from Naestved are still held by the Medical Museion at the University of Copenhagen. On 2 July 2011, a storm flooded the basement level of the museum, where the Naestved collection was stored, putting much of the collection at risk of water damage. It was reported that museum staff were working to save the collection.

Sources:

Bennike, Pia. ‘Paleopathology in Denmark: The Pioneers Vilhelm Møller-Christensen and Johannes G. Andersen.’ In Roberts, Charlotte, ed. The global history of paleopathology: Pioneers and prospects. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Møller-Christensen, Vilhelm. "Location and Excavation of the First Danish Leper Graveyard from the Middle Ages – St. Jørgen's Farm, Naestved." Bulletin of the History of Medicine 27 (1953): 112. Web.

Richards, Peter. The Medieval Leper and His Northern Heirs. Cambridge, Eng: D. S. Brewer ; Totowa, N.J, 1977. Web.

Söderqvist, Thomas. ‘Wet to the bone — saving Medical Museion’s collections after the Copenhagen cloudburst’. Medical Museion. Online. Accessed 26 December 2015.

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