Monday, 7 February 2011

Cameroon’s Gagarin: The Afterlife of Ham the Astrochimp

In February 2007, journalists descended upon the the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington D.C. in the wake of Washington Post allegations of mind-boggling bureaucracy, cockroachy conditions and substandard treatment of injured war heroes. Later that year, I stood outside the very same Medical Center on a bright November morning and, as I approached the security gates, I was distinctly uneasy. The massively framed, heavily armed guards, I was sure, would not take well to the appearance of a journalist bearing a notepad , camera, minidisc and microphone. If they asked me the purpose of my visit, how ridiculous would I sound if I told them I had come to see a space chimp? I envisaged myself being frogmarched off to some deep, dark Guantanamo hell-hole from which I might never return.

The skull of specimen 1871496 (aka Ham the Chimp) at the US National Museum of Health and Medicine.
“I am here to see Brian Spatola at the National Museum of Health and Medicine,” I told the burly guard. He flipped through my passport, looked me up and down and gestured me through with his M4 Carbine rifle. I was in, though this encounter and the abundance of marching berets I passed set me on a jittery edge for a good quarter of an hour. I felt well out of place.

So too, perhaps, did Ham the Astrochimp (or the remains of him) that I had come to see. As I wrote in my last post on Ham’s life story, he was born in the French Cameroons, flown to the US to take part in experiments into space flight and selected (over and above 14 other chimp contenders) for the first primate flight out of the earth's atmosphere. His successful mission 50 years ago on 31 January 1961 meant he beat Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin into space and paved the way for US astronaut Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight in May 1961 and all US manned flights that were to follow.

But how was it that Ham’s remains wound up embedded deep within this military compound? The answer is that he and his fellow chimps had been purchased by the Air Force and remained their property for the rest of their lives. When Ham died at North Carolina Zoo on 17 January 1983 at the age of just 26 (equivalent to somewhere between 50 and 60 in human years), he was delivered to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology (AFIP), which is located within the campus of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

On the morning of the 19 January 1983 pathologists from the AFIP and the National Zoological Park (where he had been housed from 1963 to 1980) carried out a postmortem. This suggested he had died of chronic heart failure and liver disease rather than from any strange consequence of his brief foray into space. During the procedure, care was taken to keep his skin in good condition so it could be stuffed and displayed in the National Air and Space Museum. News of this plan reached the public on 26 January. “Pioneer space chimp to be stuffed,” blurted the Washington Times. “The Smithsonian will arrange for the chimp’s taxidermy,” reported the Washington Post.

This caused something of a stir. “Taxidermy is the wrong stuff” ran a rhetorical leader in the following day’s Washington Post. It’s a darling little piece, so I hope they won’t mind me reproducing an extended chunk here:

“Talk about death without dignity. Talk about dreadful precedents – it should be enough to make any space veteran more than a little nervous about he is going to be treated in the posthumous by and by.

Rest assured that we’re not looking for full honors at Arlington here. We know that Ham was a chimp. We certainly don’t want to offend our Creationist readers – at least, not any more than we always do. But stuffing and display? The only national heroes we can think of who are stuffed and on permanent display are V.I. Lenin and Mao Tse-tung. Does this nation really want to emulate the Soviet and Chinese models? There is not one shred of evidence that Ham was a Communist....

How about treating America’s First Ape with a little respect? Bury Ham.”
The public was outraged. A sophomore at West High School in Painted Post, New York, for example, responded with a passionate plea to the National Zoo (which she cced to the Air and Space Museum, the AFIP and the Space Hall of Fame in Alamogordo). Her letter, filed away at the Smithsonian Archives, reveals that she was “shocked and horrified” at the proposal to stuff Ham. “A chimpanzee is not a green pepper!” she wrote.
“By treating his body like that of a stupid beast, people will continue thinking of apes as stupid beasts, and not the intelligent, almost human animals they really are. In my opinion, a gravestone would honor Ham’s life much better than would having his body filled with sawdust and stuck under a glass case for countless years to gather dust.”
By the time she got a reply from Lieutenant Colonel George D. Imes, then director of the Department of Veterinary Pathology at the AFIP, there had been a change of thinking. “You will be happy to learn that following our initial decision, the question was reconsidered and it was decided not to stuff and display him as orignally planned,” he wrote. Imes did also note, however, that “Because of the scientific value his skeleton will be maintained here at the Institute with the skeleton of Able, a famous space monkey.”

So that’s what happened. After the postmortem, Ham’s skin and viscera were cremated and sent to be buried in the International Space Hall of Fame at the Museum of Space History in Alamogordo, New Mexico. According to the book Animals in Space, the museum’s Ryita Price wrote to the astronaut Alan Shepard (who made NASA’s first manned suborbital flight a few months after Ham) and invited him to the 28 March ceremony.

“I don’t know if you’re an animal lover or not – or how much you feel our space program owes the primates who first proved man could survive in space. I do know that you had to cope with a lot of jokes and sometimes ‘unfunny ’ humor about the situation. And, perhaps, now would be a good time to give a timely and dignified response to these innuendoes and, at the same time, create some goodwill for the United States space program.”
Shepard, it seems, didn’t think so, preferring to appear on “only a handful of occasions in the interests of other pursuits.” From this, the authors of Animals in Space make a carefully worded speculation. “It is possible that he still begrudged Ham for preventing him from becoming the first person in space,” they wrote. It’s possible, I guess, but then so, I’m told, is anything.

Ham's grave at the International Space Hall of Fame in New Mexico.
Whilst Ham’s cremated organs went on one last flight to be interred beneath a bronze plaque in New Mexico, his fleshy skeleton was sent across Washington D.C. to be cleaned up by a colony of dermestid beetles at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of Natural History. “Dermestid beatles [sic] are finicky, preferring dried as opposed to fresh tissue,” noted Dwight Schmidt, then head of anatomical collections at the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM). So Ham’s skeleton spent around a week in a drying chamber before each bone was carefully tagged and introduced to the meat-eating beetles.

Dermestid beetles from Edmund Reitter's Fauna Germanica: Die Käfer des deutschen Reiches, 1911, Plate 101.
At the end of April, Ham’s bones were removed from the dermestid chamber, chilled so as to kill off any pupae or larvae, and soaked in ammonia to replace one bad odour with something (only slightly) less offensive. Then they were driven back to the Walter Reed Army Medical Center and carefully arranged in a drawer at the NMHM under accession number 1,871,496.

Which brings me to roughly where I began this post, walking past soldiers towards my appointment with Brian Spatola, curator at the NMHM. When he opened the Ham’s drawer, I’d set a minidisc running and have put an edited version of our conversation on Audioboo. I’m so sorry about the telephone in the background. I couldn't record elsewhere as I wanted to be beside the chimp and the darn phone just wouldn't stop ringing.

Drawer containing specimen 1871496 (aka Ham the Chimp) at the US National Museum of Health and Medicine.
Spatola pointed out the remains of dermestid pupae lodged in bits of Ham’s skeleton and also the remains of casting wax on his pelvis. In 1998, forensic anthropologist Diane France took away Ham’s pelvic girdle to make a cast of it. The “Agreement for Outgoing Loan” lists the insurance value for the two inominates and one sacrum as $30,000, that’s $10,000 per bone. As a result of France’s efforts, you can now buy a reproduction of Ham’s pelvis (#PR009F) for $149 (not $160 as I incorrectly state on this week’s Guardian Science Weekly Podcast in which I rather irreverently tell of Ham's life and afterlife).

This is the pelvis of a chimp called Chuck, whose remains France obtained from Arizona State University.
I did send an email to Dr France to find out why she was interested in Ham’s pelvis rather than a more obvious piece of his anatomy like his skull.. She didn’t reply, but here’s a possibility. The "Object Examination Report" filed when France returned Ham’s pelvis to the NMHM “in good condition” mentions that the top section of his sacrum “is not completely fused”. It’s unlikely that France was interested in the celebrity status of these bones, but was focused instead on capturing an anatomical quirk.

At roughly the same time, someone somewhere in Hollywood was casting Ham in an altogether different role, as the inspiration for the plot in the 2001 movie Race to Space.

Ham's story is also told (through cartoonised footage) in the 2008 kids' film Fly Me to the Moon. As far as historical accuracy in Hollywood movies goes, this otherwise silly movie (in which three flies join Armstrong, Aldrin and the other one on board Apollo 11)  is rather impressive.

Then, as I mentioned in an earlier post, Ham's existence is central to the plot of the 2008 film Space Chimps in which his fictional grandson (presumably descended from fictional offspring Ham sired with the North Carolina Zoo chimp Maggie in the last few years of his life) heads off into space with a couple of chimp mates. Their mission: to save a distant planet from an evil dictator called Zartog.

For a chimp or indeed for a human, Ham had a pretty startling life. Because he moved more in the human than in the animal world and we have done things with his remains and his image, he now has an impressive arfterlife too.