Just before the holidays, Folger director Michael Witmore appeared on Washington, DC, public radio station WAMU on The Kojo Nnamdi Show, where he joined Nnamdi, NIH geneticist and senior investigator Julie Segre, and New Yorker staff writer Sam Knight in an extended, lively, but somewhat curiously titled program: “Did Shakespeare Have Acne? What Historic Texts Can Tell Us About the Past.” We’ll explain all the parts of that title below.
As Nnamdi told his listeners, Knight had just written in The New Yorker about a burst of projects around the world that use “proteomics”—the study of proteins and their interactions—to learn about the past. In essence, such projects examine proteins which are on or within archaeological finds, works of art, rare books, documents, and other historical objects. Proteomics research is still rapidly developing, with the likelihood of vastly expanded capabilities in the years and decades ahead. But Knight found that individual projects are already pioneering a new and almost untouched field of study, in what he called “a heady, chaotic atmosphere of possibility.”
Among the many efforts that he described was one that took place at the Folger, irreverently known as Project Dustbunny, in which the Folger teamed with Segre and her colleagues at NIH’s National Human Genome Research Institute to see what could be learned from the dust in a 17th-century book. With Knight’s article putting the project in the spotlight, Nnamdi assembled Witmore, Segre, and Knight to delve deeper into the Project Dustbunny story, as well as the broader impact and opportunity of proteomics research in the humanities.
The Story of Project Dustbunny
As Witmore explained on the show, the project indirectly arose from the discovery of the body of Richard III under a parking lot in Leicester, England—a British king who is also, in fictional terms, one of the great villains of Shakespeare’s plays, making this exciting news at the Folger, too. Turi King, a geneticist and archaeologist at Cambridge, identified the body, Witmore said, and she “came to Washington to talk about her discoveries.”
That in turn sparked an idea of trying genetics research on some items at the Folger, too, he said:
Maybe there’s an easier way to get DNA samples from people. You don’t have to dig them up out of the ground. Because, for hundreds and hundreds of years, people have been leaning over books, they’ve been handling them, they’ve been depositing skin and hair cells, and then, they close the book and put it on a cool shelf and it stays there, sometimes undisturbed, for centuries. As that idea started to unfold, we gathered a team. I reached out to Julie and said, “Do you think that we could harvest some samples from old books and understand more about the people who used them with the techniques that you use?”
And so, with Julie, and Turi King, and Dr. Heather Wolfe, our curator of manuscripts, and Renate Mesmer, who is the head of our Conservation Lab, we got together and we decided that we would take a sample, using something like a Q-tip, from the gutter, which is the seam where the pages come together, of a 400-year-old Bible. And so we took the sample and we sent it to the NIH. And about eleven months later, we got an email from Julie, saying, “We’ve successfully sequenced the DNA, mitochondrial DNA, of two individuals. We know their haplotype, which means the region they’re from, and it looks like northern Europe, and we’ve even found bacteria that suggests that maybe they had acne on their skin.”
The implications of this discovery went far beyond that finding—although it does help to explain the odd name of the radio episode, “Did Shakespeare Have Acne?” As Witmore said,
That was very interesting to us, because it told us that in addition to having a research collection that we like to read, that a collection of books is also a bioarchive. And that means that when we work with the books, when we take them into the Conservation Lab to repair them or to see how they’ve been handled, there’s dust and other material coming out of those books all the time. Now we know that we should be preserving that material. As Julie has said, in the future, we don’t really know what we could learn from this material, so we’ve tried to start collecting it. We’ve started to actively consider our collection, in addition to being a research tool for humanists, as also being a resource for information about the biological past, down to the individual person.
It also led to a fantastic, but still very remote, idea. What if that “individual person” was Shakespeare? As Knight wrote in his article, “The Folger holds a property deed that Shakespeare kept with his personal papers. ‘It is the shiver of proximity,’ Witmore said. ‘The sense that a living person or a community is nearby.'”
As Witmore explained on the air, the notion that proteomics research on that property record might offer insights into William Shakespeare would be “a long shot, a moon shot.” In principle, however, it is not impossible. If Shakespeare, for some reason, left proteins on the property deed that is now held at the Folger, researchers could identify them by getting a sample from a living member of the family. “It doesn’t have to be a descendant,” Witmore explained, “but it does need to go up the maternal line. It could go above him, to his mother.”
Nature’s Infinite Book
In the more immediate future, however, proteomics can give researchers an idea about the health and other traits of the people who used and handled books centuries ago—or information about the animals whose skins were used to create pages made of parchment or vellum, essentially a finer type of parchment. And from those insights, new questions and ideas might arise. As usual, Shakespeare has a phrase for it. In a line from Antony and Cleopatra, researchers can use proteomics to read “nature’s infinite book,” in this case a “book” of proteins which exists all around us, including on historic objects and actual rare books.
What lies ahead? Technology, of course, will continue to evolve. “We’re at a moment now when it pays to have an open mind about this,” said Witmore. In thinking about those who read or handled a book centuries ago, “What made a person’s life precious? What did that person feel his or her life meant? Did they feel food stress because of famine?”
In Knight’s article in the New Yorker, Witmore predicts “that proteomics-driven papers will start appearing in literary and historical journals in the next five years,” adding more voices to the conversation about the past. “Whether it is data mining or proteomics or genomics,” he says, “people in the humanities have potential new friends.”
If you enjoyed listening to the discussion of proteomics on The Kojo Nnamdi Show, you may also like Michael Witmore’s previous appearances on the show, in which he discussed the history of the Folger Shakespeare Library and Shakespeare and political rhetoric.