Courier Staff Writer
An identity is starting to form around “Mr. Bones,” the skeleton discovered in the basement of St. Joseph’s Hospital.
Crews discovered the skeleton in a closet in the basement when they began cleaning out the 88-year-old hospital a year ago. The skeleton is well-preserved, with all of its teeth, toes, fingers, vertebrae and cartilage still attached.
Jackie Moll graduated from St. Joe’s in 1962, became an instructor at the school of nursing four years later and is now chairperson of the St. Joseph’s Hospital Schools of Nursing and X-Ray Alumni.
The skeleton was the property of the school of nursing and was used to teach students the anatomy and physiology of the skeletal system, Moll said.
“I can’t tell you the exact year that skeleton came to St. Joe but I did have a call from a graduate of the class of 1946 and she said in her freshman year, in 1943, she can remember that skeleton being hauled on a gurney to the classroom,” she said.
For years, the skeleton hung on a hook in the back of a classroom on the second floor and was eventually moved downstairs into the library, where Sister Marie Christine Conaway, the hospital librarian, took responsibility.
As it turns out, the skeleton is from the body of a homeless person that had originally been used by the University of Iowa College of Medicine as a cadaver in classes. Most bodies of homeless people went to the university to be used for educational purposes, Moll said.
“There were no contacts for family to find out what they wanted done with them, and they didn’t know who they were,” she said.
Sometime in the 1940s, though the exact year is unknown, St. Joe’s school of nursing acquired the skeleton, though Moll isn’t sure if it was donated or if the Sisters of Humility bought it.
There is no way to ever know his identity, Moll said.
“Even if they did do a DNA test, there was no DNA testing back then to compare the DNA to,” she said.
Dr. Bradley Scott, an orthopedic surgeon at Ottumwa Regional Health Center, confirmed Mr. Bones’ sex earlier this year and said due to the structure of the bones, the man was in his mid-80s when he died .
The school of nursing closed in 1971.
“It was special that we had a real skeleton and it lasted all these years,” Moll said. “The nuns took such good care of it.”
Laura Murphy, 86, of Morton, Ill., began training to be an X-ray technician at St. Joe’s in January 1945. She and a fellow student and friend, Betty Conrad, used the skeleton in class and said it was stored in the splint room when it wasn’t being used.
“I used to dance with him, but I don’t remember if I danced with him in front of Sister Roberta, who was the head of X-ray, or whether I was dancing with him when she wasn’t looking,” Murphy said. “I got so tickled ... yesterday I was telling my hairdresser about Mr. Bones, and she laughed and said, ‘He was down there waiting for the last dance.’”
“I don’t know if he’d recognize me today,” she joked. “Maybe if I danced.”
Murphy left the hospital in the fall of 1949.
“I always had a soft spot in my heart for St. Joe’s,” she said.
The skeleton will soon return home to Iowa City. ORHC will ship him to the University of Iowa Medical Museum in April.
“They were just thrilled to death,” ORHC executive director of development Suzie Wood previously said. “They’ll further preserve him, because he has some dark spots right now from dust, dirt and air conditioning or a lack of air conditioning.”