From preserving mummies to practicing medicine

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.

Charlotte Tisch drills into an artifact that resembles a medium-sized vessel.
(Pre-pandemic image) Before medical school, Charlotte Tisch held an internship that gave her firsthand experience in repairing and restoring artwork. (Image: Penn Medicine News)

Before embarking on her journey as a physician-in-training at the Perelman School of Medicine, 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 says. “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.”

“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 says. “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?”

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. 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.

Knowing that health care workers nationwide were struggling with a shortage of personal protective equipment 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.

This story is by MaryKate Wurst. Read more at Penn Medicine News.