All museums use pesticides and preservatives, though their health impacts are not always known; ethnographic collections can thus pose a health risk. Here we open one cold case file, in which we believe a prominent American anthropologist may have directly suffered from such effects. Our own experience and inquiries confirm this hunch.
Clark Wissler fell ill in 1905, soon after he began working in the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. At some point during the period of Wissler’s illness, Museum Director Henry Fairfield Osborn recommended that his own physician examine Wissler. But despite this additional medical consultation, the illness persisted and was never successfully diagnosed—making him appear frail until 1928 when it mysteriously cleared up. The symptoms were severe enough to cause Wissler to give up his fieldwork on the Blackfeet Reservation. Continue reading