The antiquity of hydrocephalus: the first full palaeo-neuropathological description

Raffaella Santi, Piera Rizzolo, Michele Pietragalla, Virginia Valentini, Veronica Zelli, Francesco Maria Galassi, Laura Ottini, Gabriella Nesi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Citations (Scopus)


The Pathology Museum of the University of Florence houses a rich collection of anatomical specimens and over a hundred waxworks portraying pathological conditions occurring in the nineteenth century, when the museum was established. Clinical and autopsy findings of these cases can still be retrieved from the original museum catalogue, offering a rare opportunity for retrospective palaeo-pathological diagnostics. We present a historical case of severe hydrocephalus backed by modern-day anthropological, radiological and molecular analyses conducted on the skeleton of an 18-month-old male infant deceased in 1831. Luigi Calamai (1796–1851), a wax craftsman of La Specola workshop in Florence, was commissioned to create a life-sized wax model of the child’s head, neck and upper thorax. This artwork allows us to appreciate the cranial and facial alterations determined by 30 lb of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) accumulated within the cerebral ventricular system. Based on the autopsy report, gross malformations of the neural tube, tumours and haemorrhage could be excluded. A molecular approach proved helpful in confirming sex. We present this case as the so-far most compelling case of hydrocephalus in palaeo-pathological research.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1315-1322
Number of pages8
JournalNeurological Sciences
Issue number6
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Ancient DNA
  • Hydrocephalus
  • Palaeo-radiology
  • Palaeoneurology
  • Pathology museum
  • Wax models


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