Medical sculptor putting a face on a 10,000-year-old skull

December 6, 1995
nrhoads

ANN ARBOR—The skull of a 22-year-old woman who died 10,000 years ago is being reconstructed by Denis Lee, director of the University of Michigan’s School of Art‘s graduate program in medical and biological illustration. After making a cast of the original skull, which has been returned to Texas A & M University, Lee will be working on the replica attempting to reconstruct the woman’s face.

This skull and the other skeletal fragments found at the Wilson-Leonard Site in Midland, Texas, are one of the earliest traces of human remains found in the Americas. The Paleo Indian skull will eventually be returned to the Native American people for ceremonial burial.

“It’s incredible just to hold the skull in your hand,” Lee said. “It almost talks to you.”

During the next two to three weeks, Lee will be molding the facial features of the young woman using forensic reconstruction techniques. So far, Lee has made a mold and eight casts of the original skull replicating the coloring by adding dyes and paint. Because the original skull was crushed when found, Lee will have to repair the bone structure of his model and reshape the casted skull.

As a medical sculptor, Lee constructs prosthetic replacements for ears and noses for skin cancer patients as well as fingers and toes and once even made a paw for an old English sheep dog. These realistic silicone replacement body parts are so lifelike that it is almost impossible to tell them from the real thing” giving a boost to the patient’s self-esteem.

Lee, who earned a degree in zoology from Indiana University, studied at the Art Institute of Chicago and went on to receive a master’s certificate in medical illustration at the University of Illinois in Chicago. He works extensively with children, lessening the burden of living with a foot lost to a lawn mower, an eye to cancer, or being born without an ear.

Over the years, Lee’s work has brought recognition from national magazines, an appearance on a network talk shows, numerous articles in national newspapers and scientific journals and awards and honors from various academies and associations.

People around the world seeking help for their disfigurements resulting from accidents, birth defects or cancer surgery continue to contact Lee for his expertise.