One of the best known mummies is that of Rosalia Lombardo, the Sicilian two-year old who died of pneumonia in 1920. Her near-perfect appearance becomes a sad and haunting memory for anyone who sees her. Rosalia brings history to the present in a unique way.
Having worked on family history, I know that Rosalia’s story was a common one until the discovery of antibiotics. One Brooklyn cemetery, Holy Cross, is almost half filled with babies who died prior to the 1940’s, when antibiotics came into use.
Penicillin was actually discovered in 1928 by Alexander Fleming. His discovery was an amazing scientific accident. One of his culture plates of bacteria had been left lying around over a weekend and had grown mould. As he was about to throw the mold away, he noticed a clear area around the mould. He came to the conclusion that the mould produced a substance that could kill bacteria.
Fleming extracted the active product from the mould and called it penicillin after the penicillium mould it came from. He tried to purify it to be used in humans without success. Ten years later, three scientists in England perfected the method.
Going back to Rosalia’s story, the formula which led to her perfect mummification was created by Alfredo Salafia, a Sicilian taxidermist and embalmer who died in 1933. National Geographic reports that an Italian biological anthropologist, Dario Piombino-Mascali of the Institute for Mummies and the Iceman in Bolzano, tracked down relatives of the late Alfredo Salafia.
The relatives made Alfredo’s memoir available. Piombino-Mascali’s team searched through Alfredo’s papers and found he recorded the chemicals, an embalming fluid, that he injected into Rosalia’s body: formalin, zinc salts, alcohol, salicylic acid, and glycerin.
When I was growing up, the mystery of Egyptian mummification was a subject in school. We were told the formula was lost forever, and the mystery would be lost in time, but here we see the best example of mummification and the formula is found!