BALTIMORE, Maryland (CNN) - Throughout his life, Ronn Wade has been surrounded by death. Andin most cases, it hasn't seemed to bother him.
"Death can tell us a lot about living," he says.
The son of a mortician from Laurel, Maryland, Wade has alwaysbeen fascinated with the human anatomy. Intrigued by his father'smedical books as a boy, he learned about the superior vena cava,the palmar plexus and the adductor tubercle early in life. Wadeeven mummified a dead rat for his ninth-grade science project."Preserving the body was interesting to me." he says.
After a stint in Vietnam as an Air Force medic, Wade arrived atthe University of Maryland School of Medicine as the director ofthe anatomical services division. One of Wade's responsibilities isto provide cadaver donors to local hospitals and medicalinstitutions for surgical training.
But perhaps more intriguing, Wade's department also oversees acollection of 200 medical mummies, called the Burns Collection.Assembled in Scotland in the early 1800s by Allen Burns, an expertdissector, the mummies were used as teaching tools; eventually theywere brought to Maryland and bought by the university.
The collection of mummies was well preserved, Wade discovered."They were embalmed -- the fluids had things like mercury andarsenic -- and then they were salt- and sugar-cured to bepreserved," he says.
And they were illegal. "This is at a time when there was no suchthing as donations, and dissection of a body was strictly illegal,"he says. "So many of them were taken from graves."
Wade calls the collection fascinating and says we can learna lot from mummies in general. "They were exposed to a lot ofthings we are today -- like bacteria, disease," he notes. "We cansee signs of osteoarthritis, stress, even hardening of thearteries."
When you hear the word "mummy," you might think of the ancientEgyptians who preserved their rulers by drying out their bodies andwrapping them in bandages treated with special chemicals. Theymummified bodies to protect them against decay. And, although weusually think of a mummy as a human being, animals -- and evenplants -- can be mummified.
Although the ancient Egyptians were well-known for theirmummification practices, other cultures also used special embalmingprocedures to preserve their dead. Some of the best-kept mummiesdate back more than 500 years from the Inca civilization, whichstretched from Peru to Chile.
Weather can also create mummified bodies. In 1972, eight mummieswere discovered in Greenland where they were naturally preserved bythe freezing temperatures. Those bodies were hundreds of yearsold.
And peat bogs have been known to preserve bodies; many mummifiedremains have been found in peat bogs across Northern Europe, somedating back thousands of years.
Today, many scientists are using these mummies to learn how ourbodies work. "You can see anatomy, you can see pathology, you cansee if there has been surgery, like a bypass," says Wade.
Another modern-day use of mummies is genetic research. InBolzano, Italy, the EURAC-Institute for Mummies and the Iceman wasrecently created to investigate ancient DNA in mummies as well asthe famous Iceman, found in the Alps in 1991. The Iceman's body,known as "Ötzi," dates back more than 5,300 years and is theoldest "wet" mummy -- in which the tissue is actually preservedwith fat and some water -- ever found. By using high-tech imagingequipment, scientists hope to examine the body to better understandnot only the aging process but also how man has evolved.
In 1994, Wade and Bob Brier, a professor of philosophy andEgyptology at Long Island University, took a human body that hadbeen willed to science and mummified it following the ancientprocedures of mummification outlined in ancient Egyptian lore. Forweeks, the scientists painstakingly removed the organs from thedonor, wrapped the body in bandages treated with "chemicals" theancient Egyptians would have used, and recorded the process. "Wedidn't have a book to go by, no manual. It all had to beresearched," Wade says. "And it had to be the way the Egyptianswould have done it."
"Our goal was to have a control mummy to use to compare to otherpreserved bodies, to see what changes take place over time," saysWade.
Now on exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Man, the Wade-Briermummy is still being mined for data. "It's ongoing research; westill take cultures and biopsies from the mummy," says Wade. Infact, many scientists can look at the mummy and compare it withthose they've found at archaeological sites.
Since making a mummy from scratch, Wade has been tinkering withother ways to preserve the body. Over the years, he's been workingon a technique called "plastination" that replaces the water andfat inside a body's tissues with polymers -- sticky, hard-dryingplastics. Through this process, three-dimensional specimens can bepreserved for teaching and research. They can be held,cross-sectioned, even dissected for use as "hands-on" teachingtools.
"The whole idea is to enhance the learning process," says Wade."Anatomy is not just dissecting bodies. Yes, it's a large part ofwhat we do, but we can also help students enhance their studies,and assist clinical staff to develop skills and expertise, all forthe sake of the patient."
Copyright © 2009 Cable News Network. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc. All Rights Reserved.