Late last year we had the pleasure of speaking to Sharon Petronaci, a former Osteological Technician for Clay Adams, one of America's premiere osteological supply companies.
When Sharon graduated high school at age 18 in 1969, her first job was in the osteological department of Clay Adams in New Jersey. Her sister was the secretary of the Head of the Natural Science Division Mr. Henry Gumpert from Germany, and it was through this connection that Sharon landed her job. When interviewed for the position, Sharon expressed her interest in art, and this was apparently the perfect qualification for the job.
Working in the “bone room,” Sharon received a rapid education in anatomy. This job did not require a college degree, so Sharon’s knowledge of human anatomy comes exclusively from having been trained in this department by her supervisor, Betsy Luppo. The bones that Clay Adams sold would arrive from the M.B. Company of India disarticulated, in a box the length of a femur. This jumble of bones would have the hands and feet pre-sorted into drawstring canvas bags, but otherwise, all sorting would have to be done by the bone room employees. Occasionally, these boxes would contain scraps of Indian newspapers, wood shavings, sand, and other detritus from their country of origin.
Sharon worked alongside a team of mostly women whose names were Michelle, Hannah, Gisle, and Diane, learning each stage of preparing skeletons. When the bone boxes would come in, they would be sorted by presumed age, sex, and skeletal color. The teeth would be removed and cleaned. Then the bones would then be sent to Richie and Miguel, who were in charge of the degreasing and bleaching processes. Bones that needed degreasing were put into the degreasing machine, but most were just put through a strong hydrogen peroxide bleach regimen.
After the bones were thoroughly cleaned, they were then under Sharon and her co-workers' care. Sharon was taught by Henry Gumpert himself to do the cuts necessary for skulls on the bandsaw. Sometimes she would bisect femurs for easy viewing of the trabeculae. Sharon said this process “smelled horrible.” After the necessary cuts were made, the bones were ready to be assembled with copper or stainless steel fittings and painted. Each skeleton was painted on the individual’s right side, and block lettered with quill. The spines were articulated with felt disks between vertebrae and plastic to replace the sternum cartilage, and then the skull was rubber-stamped. Skulls and skeletons were divided into classes of A, B, C, and D, depending on the quality and strength of the bone. If the skull needed a specialty preparation, it was done by Henry Gumpert. The bones were then sent to a warehouse in New Jersey to be distributed.
Sharon has very fond memories of her time at Clay Adams. As a single mother, she was able to support herself and her daughter, and have an interesting work environment. She remembers fondly the times that outside visitors would come to the bone room to ooh and ahh over the skeletons. The women on the Osteological Technician Team had rigged up threads to the skeletons, causing them to unexpectedly dance, much to the visitors' shock. Sharon also remembered the friendly hazing ritual for new employees, where each would receive a box, only to open it and discover a rotten tooth covered in red paint.
Sharon saw many different types of pathology during her tenure. From bone spurs that grew into the cranial cavity to bones eaten away by syphilis, the bones shipped from India represented a country that suffered from inadequate medical care in rural areas especially.
Sharon remained an Osteological Technician until the bone department of Clay Adams was shut down. Due to difficulty sourcing bones in the mid 70’s she was transferred to other parts of the company, but wished she could have remained at her first job, given the love she had for it. Clay Adams was bought by Beckton Dickinson before Sharon’s employment, moving the company from New York City to New Jersey, and then pushing a focus on medical equipment manufacturing such as centrifuges and blood chemical analysis mechanisms. At its prime, Clay Adams employed almost 450 people. At the time, a college degree was really only necessary for executives or for those in the research and development branch of the company, so many people like Sharon were able to make a living without one. The bone room was a product of its time, when regulations were less strict, and public scrutiny was not as prevalent. As India tightened restrictions, jobs like Sharon’s became obsolete. After her time at Clay Adams, Sharon went on to consult for the Department of Defense, but still has a Clay Adams skull in her home as a memento of her warm memories of being an Osteological Technician.