Ruffer, Marc Armand

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(b. Lyons, France, 1859: d. eastern Mediterranean, ca. 2 May 1917)


Ruffer was the son of Baron Jacques de Ruffer, a banker. He was first educated in Paris, where he was later a pupil of Pasteur and Metchnikoff. Then, after additional study in Germany, he went to England, where he graduated B.A. from the University of Oxford in 1882 and M.B. from University College, London, in 1887. He later served as director of the British Institute of Preventive Medicine. After contracting a laboratory infection there, he convalesced in Egypt, where he became professor of bacteriology at the Cairo Medical School. He was knighted in 1916 for his contributions to bacteriology and hygiene and for his service to the Red Cross. Ruffer was drowned while returning to Egypt from Salonika, when his ship was torpedoed during World War I.

Ruffer’s reputation rests securely on his pioneering work in paleopathology. Although anticipated in paleohistological studies by Czermak, D. M. Fouquet, H. M. Wilder, and Samuel Shattock and in the osseous pathology of ancient remains by Elliot Smith and Wood Jones, Ruffer’s influence in paleopathology is unparalleled. Few paleopathological works are published without extensive reference to him.

Because of the ample material supplied by his colleagues in the field of Egyptology. Ruffer was able to revolutionize techniques for the microscopic examination of ancient human tissues. He published important papers on the normal and pathological histology of Egyptian mummies of all periods. Many normal tissues, even from Predynastic bodies, were often wonderfully preserved. Ruffer’s most important pathological observations revealed the presence of eggs of Schistosoma bilharzia in mummy kidneys, of degenerative arterial disease in bodies ranging from the New Kingdom to Coptic Christian times, and of probable smallpox lesions. Contemporary paleopathology utilizes more sophisticated tinctorial, histochemical, and electron microscope techniques, but these are all derived from Ruffer’s original methods.

In the field of morbid anatomy, Ruffer’s major observations concerned osseous and dental pathology. These observations complemented and consolidated important earlier work by Elliot Smith and Wood Jones on human remains uncovered by the Archaeological Survey of Nubia (1907–1908). His studies proved conclusively that osteoarthritis was a common degenerative disease over a period of three millennia in ancient Egypt. Ruffer showed also that dental disease was very common. Among the other pathological lesions that he described, the most important was a unique example of Pott’s disease of the spine in a New Kingdom mummy. Because the soft tissues had survived, the diagnosis of tuberculosis could be made with great confidence. This report is of considerable significance since it supports tentative diagnoses of tuberculosis in other purely skeletal remains from ancient Egypt.

Ruffer showed conclusively that certain common and important maladies have affected man for almost 5,000 years, a valuable observation for both the physician and the historian. In 1921 Ruffer’s papers were published posthumously in a collected volume. The book has continued to stimulate interest in the field of paleopathology.


Ruffer’s papers were published in Studies in the Palaeopathology of Egypt, R. L. Moodie, ed. (Chicago, 1921).

Useful secondary sources are D. Brothwell and A. T. Sandison, eds., Diseases in Antiquity, ( Springfield, Ill., 1967); S. Jarcho, ed., Human Palaeopathology (New Haven, 1966); and A. T. Sandison, “Sir Marc Armand Ruffer (1859–1917)-Pioneer of Palaeopathology,” in Medical History, 11 (1967), 150–156.

A. T. Sandison