- Remembering Joseph M. Gambescia: A Man of Science and Faith
“Science does not prove anything; it can only disprove something.” This is how my father, Joseph M. Gambescia, responded each time he was asked, “Is the man of the Shroud of Turin Jesus Christ?” The question would typically arise following his popular, 90-minute presentations on the shroud—surely one of the most peculiar artifacts in western history—which included physical description, archeological history, medical conjecture, scientific treatment, and discussion of the religious significance of the object. The question would also come after long interviews with journalists and students from all disciplines and professions who sought answers to the many mysteries of the Shroud of Turin.
My father admitted that he took a few months to ponder the question when it first arose. He determined there must be some reasonable explanation for the image on this shroud—therefore, there was no mystery. In 1955, Gambescia, a graduate of Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia, board certified in internal medicine, was approached by a Redemptorist father, Adam J. Otterbein, to join his team of sidonologists on the nascent Holy Shroud Guild, based in Esopus, New York, which became the premier American organization devoted to the study of the shroud.1 Father Otterbein was looking for a man of medicine, a scientist, but also someone who would show a level of deference to help explain the suffering that appeared to have taken place for the man of the shroud.
At that time my father was hitting the prime of his medical career, having completed postgraduate training in pathology and medicine, as well as a two-year stint in the U.S. Army Medical Corps, working on hepatitis. But he was also wary of the limitations of science, which he [End Page 109] once described as a “sacred cow,” and had been primed by a powerful religious epiphany while studying as an undergrad at Villanova University. Despite his eclectic range of experiences, there was little that could prepare him for what was to come—namely, taking the lead in a medical analysis of the shroud, including a forensic study of the various methods and stages of death of an individual undergoing crucifixion.2
Sindonology, the scientific study of the Shroud of Turin, is an esoteric area of study with a small number of devoted practitioners worldwide. Their ranks include a range of professional backgrounds and training, including photography, x-ray, microscopy, a range of spectrometry, textiles, chemistry, biochemistry, physics, forensics, pathology, archeology, materials conservation, and biblical studies. Through such varied methods, sindonologists aim to answer such questions as: What does this image reveal? What is the exact nature of the image? How did the image get on the cloth and stay there? and Who is the man of the shroud?
The Shroud of Turin Research Project (STURP), which assembled to study the Shroud during its 1978 public exposition in Turin, Italy, consisted of 32 American investigators. For my father, who served on the STURP team, the study of the Shroud would become a lifetime occupation. Decades after his death he would be credited for a hypothesis about the position of the feet and nails used for the crucifixion of the man of the shroud.
Examination of the Body of a Saint
Gambescia’s experience may have gained him a reputation as someone comfortable working the borderlands of religion and science, because one decade after beginning his study of the shroud, he was one of two physicians asked to examine the body of John Neumann (1811–1860). The fourth bishop of Philadelphia (1852–1860), Neumann’s contributions to the city are indelible, including his founding of a women’s religious order and the building of a robust system of Catholic schools and parishes, including the Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul.3 Neumann’s body was exhumed as part of the canonization process: specifically, the movement from “Venerable” to “Blessed” status—the final stage before formal sainthood. (When canonized, Neumann [End Page 110] became the third American saint.)4 In addition to examining the body, Gambescia was asked to review medical records and reports of miracles attributed to Neumann.