Donald J. Ortner, Ph.D., D.Sc. (1938-2012)
Donald J. Ortner was born August 23, 1938 in Massachusetts. Because his father was a minister with the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, much of his childhood was spent moving from place to place. In 1960 he received a BA in zoology from Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, Maryland. 1960 was also the year he married his wife Joyce Elayne Walker, who traveled with him for much of his career.
After receiving his undergraduate degree he began working at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC with J. Lawrence Angel (1915-1986). It was during this time that he learned about human skeletal biology and museum work, and gained a reputation for photography and technical skills. While maintaining his relationship with the Smithsonian, he received his MA in anthropology from Syracuse University in 1967, and his Ph.D. from University of Kansas in 1970. His doctoral dissertation related to The Effects of Aging and Disease on the Micromorphology of Human Compact Bone and established his skill and interest in microscopy and bone histology.
Following his Ph.D, he served as Chair of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History’s department of anthropology from 1988-1992, and as acting director of the NMNH from 1994-1996. His self-described interests include human biocultural adaptation, human paleopathology, history and evolution of human infectious diseases, bioarchaeology of metabolic disorders, human skeletal biology, human health in medieval England, bioarchaeology of the ancient Near East, and human bone histomorphology. Throughout his life he authored or co-authored more than 125 publications.
In 1981, he collaborated with Walter Putschar (a medical pathologist in Boston) to write “Identification of Pathological conditions in Human Skeletal Remains“. With new editions published in 1985 and 2003, this text is still widely used today.
He was a major contributor and member of the Paleopathology Association, and served as its president from 1999-2001. As his obituary states, written by Douglas Ubelaker for AJPA, he received the Eve Cockburn Award of the Paleopathology Association in 2005 as “recognition of his leadership and scientific contributions to the field.” At the time of his death he served on the editorial boards of the International Journal of Osteoarchaeology, Journal of Paleopathology and the Paleopathology Newsletter. He was also viewed as a significant resource for professional consultation relating to skeletal abnormalities.
Because Ortner spent most of his career working at the Smithsonian, his contributions to students were not so much in the form of formal academic advisor, but rather in his love of sharing information, collaborating, and the many educational programs and symposiums he helped organize. He did serve as a visiting professor at the University of Bradford in England. Many significant figures in the world of paleopathology readily admit to being positively influenced by, and learning from Ortner. According to Mary Lucas Powell, Ortner’s contributions fall into three categories: “his outstanding skill and generosity as a teacher; the range of his numerous publications on paleopathology; and his service to the Paleopathology Association (PPA), the primary scholarly society for the discipline.”
Throughout his life Ortner remained dedicated to improving diagnosis and analysis of paleopathological conditions and disease in skeletal remains. According to his page on the Smithsonian website, his major research focus largely dealt with the impact of developmental changes in human society (such as sedentism, urbanization, and agricultural intensification) on human health.
As is the case with most prominent paleopathologists in the 20th century, Ortner was involved in the debate about the origins of Syphilis, or venereal treponemal disease. In Identification of Pathological Conditions in Human Skeletal Remains, Ortner takes a largely descriptive, un-opinionated perspective, however, based on an interview with the Washington Post in 1992, and data from other publications, it is well known that Ortner did not believe that syphilis was brought back to the Old World by Columbus. Because conclusive proof is nearly impossible to establish, this debate rages on to this day, although the many osteologists take Ortner’s side in this debate against New World Origins for Syphilis.
Although Ortner’s most well-known contributions to the field deal with his skilled analysis and diagnosis of pathologies such as syphilis, tuberculosis, scurvy and many more diseases, he also actively wrote on the issues facing modern osteological research. In his 2009 article Issues in Paleopathology and Possible Strategies for Dealing with Them he emphasizes a need for more rigorous diagnosis of abnormalities, better research design, establishment of research centers to curate large collections of remains, and collaboration between medical fields and paleopathology, in particular skeletal radiology and orthopedic pathology.
Although Donald Ortner passed away in 2012, his legacy will live on in his extensive research and contributions to the field of biological anthropology.