The Doctor will see you now…

This blog post deals with one of the identified individuals at St John’s Milton and is published with the full knowledge and permission of his known descendants. It deals with issues of substance abuse and depression, and the family hope that in telling his story we can illustrate how deeply-rooted these issues can be in societies, and help show the parallels between the past and today.

One of the first people we were able to positively identify from St. John’s Milton was Gustav Adolf Weber. As we excavated his burial, his preserved coffin plate because visible and we quickly realised his name and date of death was still readable.  It’s a very rare thing in archaeology for skeletons to be labelled with their names, so when it happens we all get pretty excited! Dr. Weber is one of four people from St. John’s Milton to have preserved and readable coffin plates (one of the others being his wife, Flora who we will probably come to in later blog posts).

Church records tell us that Dr. Weber had his origins in Bavaria, and came to Milton via London, where he studied and practiced medicine for 14 years. Once in the colony he married Flora McKay, who bore him 2 daughters, but sadly died from complications from the second daughter’s birth. 

Excerpt from Gustav (Adolphus) Weber’s response to the Bruce Herald (Bruce Herald, Volume VI, Issue 434, 4 September 1872). Accessed via National Library of New Zealand, Papers Past (https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/bruce-herald/1872/9/4/7)

As the town doctor and a notable member of Milton society, Dr. Weber features more heavily in historical sources than other members of the Milton township. We know, for instance, of his many changes of address due to regular adverts in the Bruce Herald telling patients where he was holding practice. We even have Dr. Weber’s own voice in the form of a letter accusing the Bruce Herald of defaming his character! It’s a rare privilege to be able to read words actually written by a person you are studying. It gives us an insight into their thoughts and feelings as a person that we hardly ever get as archaeologists. 

We also quite a lot about the unfortunate events surrounding Dr. Weber’s death, as the local paper salaciously published all the details of his heartbreak over his wife’s death and overuse of drugs such as laudanum and chloroform to ease the pain.

From the account of Gustav Weber’s death (Bruce Herald, Vol VII, Issue 643, 23rd October 1874). Accessed via National Library of New Zealand, Papers Past (https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/bruce-herald/1874/10/23/5)

So what can bioarchaeology add to Dr. Weber’s story? Well, we’re still in the process of completing post-excavation analysis, but some of the evidence from his skeleton is already giving us an idea of his standing in society. For example he is the only excavated individual with high-quality dental work – gold fillings.

We are also starting to narrow down where in Bavaria he may have hailed from using his skeletal chemistry and DNA, and we are beginning to find out what he ate using isotope signals in his teeth – more on this later!

Charlotte King

Addiction issues and depression are not a thing of the past. If you or anyone you know are struggling with issues like Gustav’s then there are places to find help:

Alcohol Drug Helpline: https://alcoholdrughelp.org.nz. General freephone 0800 787 797 (in New Zealand)

Kina Families & Addictions Trusthttp://www.kina.org.nz/talk-to-someone/ Support for family, whānau and friends of people using alcohol and other drugs.

NZ Drug Foundation: https://www.drugfoundation.org.nz/info/helping-someone/

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