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
History of Neurology


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.


Hydrocephalus Palaeoneurology Pathology museum Wax models Palaeo-radiology Ancient DNA 



Thanks are due to the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Firenze for their support of the Pathology Museum of the University of Florence. The authors wish to express their gratitude to Ugo Funaioli for his valuable work in ensuring housing and curation of the skeletal specimen collected. Francesco M. Galassi thanks the Mäxi Foundation (Zurich, Switzerland) for supporting his research.

Compliance with ethical standards

Conflict of interest

The authors report that they have no financial interests or potential conflicts of interest.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag Italia S.r.l., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Division of Pathological Anatomy, Department of Surgery and Translational MedicineUniversity of FlorenceFlorenceItaly
  2. 2.Department of Molecular MedicineSapienza University of RomeRomeItaly
  3. 3.Radiology SectionUniversity of FlorenceFlorenceItaly
  4. 4.Institute of Evolutionary MedicineUniversity of ZurichZurichSwitzerland

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