Adipocere

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Adipocere /ˈædɨpɵsɪər/, also known as corpse, grave or mortuary wax, is a wax-like organic substance formed by the anaerobic bacterial hydrolysis of fat in tissue, such as body fat in corpses. In its formation, putrefaction is replaced by a permanent firm cast of fatty tissues, internal organs and the face.

History[edit]

Adipocere was first described by Sir Thomas Browne in his discourse Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial (1658):[1]

In a Hydropicall body ten years buried in a Church-yard, we met with a fat concretion, where the nitre of the Earth, and the salt and lixivious liquor of the body, had coagulated large lumps of fat, into the consistence of the hardest castile-soap: wherof part remaineth with us.

The chemical process of adipocere formation, saponification, came to be understood in the 17th century when microscopes became widely available.[1]

In 1825, physician and lecturer Augustus Granville is believed to have (somewhat unwittingly) made candles from the adipocere of a mummy and used them to light the public lecture he gave to report on the mummy's dissection. Granville apparently thought that the waxy material from which he made the candles had been used to preserve the mummy, rather than its being a product of the saponification of the mummified body.[2]

The body of the "Soap Lady", whose corpse turned itself into adipocere, is displayed in the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.[3]

Appearance[edit]

Adipocere is a crumbly, waxy, water-insoluble material consisting mostly of saturated fatty acids. Depending on whether it was formed from white or brown body fat, adipocere is grayish white or tan in color.[1]

In corpses, the firm cast of adipocere allows some estimation of body shape and facial features, and injuries are often well-preserved.[1]

Formation[edit]

The transformation of fats into adipocere occurs best in an environment that has an absence of oxygen and high levels of moisture, such as in wet ground or mud at the bottom of a lake or a sealed casket, and it can occur with both embalmed and untreated bodies. Adipocere formation begins within a month of death, and, in the absence of air, it can persist for centuries.[4] Adipocerous formation preserved the left hemisphere of the brain of a 13th-century infant such that sulci, gyri, and even Nissl bodies in the motor cortex could be distinguished in the 20th century.[5] An exposed, infested body or a body in a warm environment is unlikely to form deposits of adipocere.

Corpses of women, infants and overweight persons are particularly prone to adipocere transformation because they contain more body fat.[1] In forensic science, the utility of adipocere formation to estimate the postmortem interval is limited because the speed of the process is temperature-dependent. It is accelerated by warmth, but temperature extremes impede it.[1]

Footnotes[edit]

  1. ^ a b c d e f Murad, Turhon A. (2008). "Adipocere". In Ayn Embar-seddon, Allan D. Pass (eds.). Forensic Science. Salem Press. p. 11. ISBN 978-1-58765-423-7. 
  2. ^ Pain, Stephanie (1 January 2009). "What killed Dr Granville's mummy?". New Scientist (2687). 
  3. ^ http://muttermuseum.org/exhibitions/the-soap-lady/
  4. ^ "Decomposition: What is grave wax?". Retrieved 2011-10-06. 
  5. ^ Papageorgopoulou C, Rentsch K, Raghavan M, Hofmann MI, Colacicco G, Gallien V, Bianucci R, Rühli F (2010). "Preservation of cell structures in a medieval infant brain: a paleohistological, paleogenetic, radiological and physico-chemical study". Neuroimage 50 (3): 893–901. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2010.01.029. PMID 20080189.