Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Marc Ruffer, founder of paleopathology

Mummy. Photo by Paul Hudson on Flickr. CC BY 2.0.

Sir Marc Armand Ruffer (1859–1917) is considered the founder of paleopathology, the study of disease in human remains. He was born in Lyons, France, the son of Swiss banker Baron Jacques de Ruffer and a German mother. He was educated in Germany and France, Oxford and London, and worked for a short time on rabies under Louis Pasteur at the Pasteur Institute in Paris. He was naturalized as a British citizen in 1890 and became in 1891 the first director of what later became the Lister Institute. He developed a diphtheria antitoxin, but developed clinical diphtheria and its severe paralytic complications, forcing him to resign his position. He went to Egypt to regain his health in 1896. Appointed in due course as professor of bacteriology at the Faculty of Medicine in Cairo, he worked on the normal and abnormal histology of Egyptian mummies, helping to establish the field of paleopathology.

In his work, he devised a softening fluid used to rehydrate the brittle mummy tissue before it could be sectioned for microscopy. He found evidence of arteriosclerosis in blood vessels from the eighteenth dynasty, calcified Schistosoma eggs in mummy kidneys and probable smallpox lesions from the twentieth dynasty, and involvement of the spine by tuberculosis (Pott’s disease) from the twenty-first dynasty. He also described osteoarthritis, spondylitis, dental disease, achondroplasia and perhaps rickets in mummies, published a report about a tumor of the pelvis in Roman times, perhaps an osteosarcoma, as well as discussing prehistoric trephining and the kind of food eaten in antiquity.

Ruffer worked on committees dealing with health, disease, and sanitation in Egypt, and helped eliminate cholera from that country. He served on the Indian Plague Commission, became head of the Red Cross in Egypt, and in 1916 went to Salonica in Greece to reorganize the sanitary service of the provisional Greek government. On his return in 1917, he died after German submarines torpedoed his ship off the Greek coast. He had been knighted in 1916 and has been honored by the Ottoman, Greek, and Russian governments.


  • AT Sandison. Sir Marc Armand Ruffer (1859-1917) pioneer of palaeopathology. Med Hist 1967, 11(2):150.
  • Charles DePaolo. Sir Marc Armand Ruffer, MD: The early years, 1878-1896. J Med Biogr 2021, 29(3):169.

GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief

Highlighted Vignette Volume 15, Issue 3 – Summer 2023

Winter 2023



2 responses

  1. XLNT article, as we are now on the Nile on Jon Baines tour focusing on ancient Egyptian medicine.

  2. Are you in touch with your Egyptian colleagues?

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