The skeleton of Harry Eastlack, a man who lived with FOP until he died just six days shy of his fortieth birthday, is on display at The Mutter Museum of The College of Physicians in Philadelphia. Harry Eastlack's skeleton, one of the few existing in the world, has become a valuable asset to physicians and scientists studying the disease. Late in his life, Harry Eastlack made the decision to bequeath his body to his physician who donated Harry's skeleton to The Mutter Museum so that physicians and scientists in future generations could study and learn about FOP.
The Skeleton of Harry Eastlack
The glass case in which Harry Eastlack's skeleton dwells has become a window into the medical mysteries and scientific challenges of FOP. It also exemplifies the harsh reality of FOP more than any chart, slide, or clinical description could accomplish.
Normal skeletons collapse into piles of loose bones when the connective tissues that join bones together in life are removed. To be displayed in human form, skeletons have to be re-articulated or pieced back together with fine wires and glue. As a result of the bridges of bone that formed from FOP flare-ups, Harry Eastlack's skeleton is almost completely fused into one piece, which proved little challenge for the articulator's craft.
Sheets of bone cover Harry Eastlack's back. Ribbons, sheets, and plates of bone lock his spine to his skull and his skull to his jaw. Additional ribbons and cordons of bone span from the spine to the limbs and immobilize the shoulders, elbows, hips, and knees. Thin stalagmites of bone launch themselves from his pelvis and thighs. His upper arms are welded to his breastbone by slender white bridges of bone that cross his immobilized rib cage.
This FOP skeleton, which stands as Harry Eastlack stood in life, is a constant reminder of how far scientists have come in the research of FOP, but it is also a constant reminder of how much further they need to go. Harry Eastlack's skeleton was graciously lent by The Mutter Museum to The International FOP Association (IFOPA) for scientific and medical teaching at The Second and Third International FOP Symposia held in Philadelphia in 1995 and 2000. Physicians and scientists from around the world traveled to Philadelphia to learn about FOP and to have the opportunity to view and study this now famous skeleton.
The Mutter Museum houses a collection of human specimens and models depicting many diseases in various stages of development. This unique museum is fitting for Harry's Eastlack's legacy, as Harry grew up in Philadelphia, and lived there his entire life with his mother, father, and sister. In more recent times, Philadelphia has become the international center for FOP research. The proximity of Harry Eastlack's skeleton to the FOP Center & Laboratory and to its students, scientists, and visitors has added enormously to its value in educating physicians, scientists, and patients alike across the generations.
Although no member of the FOP research team at The University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia ever knew Harry Eastlack during his lifetime, they have come to know Harry well posthumously through his remarkable bequest. “Harry's skeleton is like The Sphinx. It stands silently and elegantly and reveals its secrets if you ask the right questions,” said Dr. Frederick Kaplan who leads the international FOP research team in Philadelphia. Dr. Kaplan and members of his research team are frequent visitors to The Mutter Museum where Harry's skeleton resides. ”When we discover something important about FOP in the laboratory, we return to visit Harry's skeleton in order to confirm the reality of the discovery. At other times, we may discover something about Harry's skeleton that sends us running back to the laboratory to test a new hypothesis about FOP,” Kaplan said. “The gift that Harry has given to the FOP community is inestimable and his bequest has given additional meaning and depth to medical and scientific research well beyond the confines of his mortal existence. I never knew Harry in life,” added Kaplan, “But I bless his memory every time I visit the museum where his legacy continues to educate and inspire.”
For more information on the FOP skeleton or Harry Eastlack, Clinical Reviews in Bone and Mineral Metabolism (PDF).