charlotte tisch mummies to medicine medicine plus penn medicine magazine

By MaryKate Wust

Charlotte Tisch’s first patient was a man named Nesmin. During a two-year internship, Tisch honed her observational skills and learned to better understand his needs, collaborated with an interdisciplinary team to develop personalized treatment plans, and used her growing expertise to care for him. The twist: Nesmin had been dead for more than two thousand years.

Before embarking on her journey as a physician-in-training at the Perelman School of Medicine (PSOM) at the University of Pennsylvania, Tisch attended Brown University for her undergraduate studies. She had long planned to pursue the pre-med track, but after taking an Egyptian archaeology class that she added to her schedule for fun, everything changed.

“I grew up going to museums like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, but I had never engaged with art and artifacts at this level,” she said. “Rather than just admiring objects for their beauty, that class encouraged me to consider the meaning behind them. What purpose did they serve? What could these objects teach me about the people and cultures that created them? I just fell in love.”

Tisch decided to major in Egyptian archaeology and psychology. When she wasn’t poring over books and documents in the library, she was excavating a site two blocks from campus to unearth the foundation of a house that had been there 200 years prior. Tisch was especially intrigued by how museums and collections preserve and create historical narratives. After a professor connected her with a conservator at the Museum of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), Tisch started an internship that gave her firsthand experience in repairing and restoring artwork.

charlotte tisch mummies to medicine medicine plus penn medicine magazine

“Things go into a museum so that they can live forever, and as a conservator’s intern, it’s your job to help preserve an object’s integrity and honor the culture that it came from,” she said.

This is also where she met Nesmin, a mummified Ptolemaic priest who lived more than two millennia ago in what is now Akhmim, Egypt. Though she wasn’t entrusted with preserving his physical life, Tisch was deeply invested in determining how the museum could ensure his body and story lived on. Nesmin became the topic of her thesis, and she developed changes for his display and delved into the history of the cultural popularity of Egyptian mummies in the U.S.

“I started looking into how different institutions emphasize the fact that these are human remains and that these people’s final wish was to be left alone in their tombs,” she said. “How can we keep their bodies intact in ways that are congruent with their religious beliefs? How can we address the issues of colonialism that led to these mummies being removed from their country and, for a long time, barbarically unwrapped once they got here? How can we teach visitors to take a step back from the Hollywood depiction and understand that these are people who lived?”

At the same time that Tisch was studying and caring for Nesmin, she was also watching her pre-med friends spend days studying for the MCAT and applying to medical schools—and she was jealous. “Even if you’re full of enthusiasm and passion, the MCAT is a pretty miserable test. And here I was wishing that I was studying for it!” she said. “I realized that something was either seriously wrong with me, or maybe I should reconsider whether medicine was something I wanted to get back to.”

She graduated from Brown in 2017 without having taken the MCAT, and yet she wasn’t too far behind her classmates. Not only had her psychology major checked off some required science classes, but her experiences with archaeology had applications outside of the museum. Tisch’s days spent digging in the dirt taught her how to look for clues and draw informed conclusions; her internship sharpened her fine motor skills and helped her learn to ‘listen’ to the objects in her care and maintain their ‘health’; and her thesis work prepared her for future anatomy courses and patient care by teaching her to see Nesmin as a man, not a mummy. Working for a year in the tech sphere reaffirmed that she wanted to spend her life helping people and giving back, so she completed Goucher College’s post-baccalaureate premedical program, then started at PSOM last year.

A Pandemic Inspiration

The coronavirus pandemic complicated her first year of medical school, but Tisch still took each challenge in stride—even when she was diagnosed with COVID-19 in March. While self-isolating, she brainstormed ways in which she could support the mounting needs of the community from her bed. One night while trying to figure out if her sense of smell had returned, she suddenly recalled something important—the face masks that she used during conservation work at RISD were very similar to the masks she used in the hospital.

charlotte tisch mummies to medicine medicine plus penn medicine magazine

Knowing that health care workers nationwide were struggling with a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the early days of the pandemic, she reached out to her museum networks and asked if they had untapped pools of masks, gloves, and other protective gear that they could donate. Jackpot.

Tisch was “overwhelmed and humbled” by the generosity and eagerness to help that she found as donations came in from the Whitney Museum, New York Historical Society, Brooklyn Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Penn Museum, contributed through the PPEnn Pals program created by fellow PSOM first-year Noa Erlitzki. Tisch was also grateful to have found a meaningful way to get involved after initially feeling a bit helpless while away from the clinic and the classroom.

“While it’s been stressful, it’s also been an amazing time to be in medical school,” Tisch said. “We’re all excited to get back onto the wards and to interact with patients again, but I think that this time has been invigorating for our education and will impact our clinical experiences in the future.”

For Tisch, her memory of the COVID-19 era and her first year at Penn will also forever be colored by her two “worlds colliding” perfectly, demonstrating that perhaps there isn’t such a large gap between preserving mummies and practicing medicine.

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