Secrets of the Dead: The Lost Diary of Dr. Livingstone

Dr. David Livingstone was a popular hero of the Victorian era, a celebrated explorer, a staunch abolitionist and pioneering doctor, who developed a treatment for malaria. Famously reclusive, he disappeared for six years during one of his expeditions to Africa until American journalist Henry Morton Stanley stumbled upon him in a small village, famously saying “Dr. Livingstone, I presume.”

Now, 140 years after his death, PBS will air a documentary on him, called Secrets of the Dead: The Lost Diary of Dr. Livingstone, on Wednesday, March 26, at 10 p.m. ET. The film will follow a team of experts, led by the University of Nebraska’s Adrian Wisnicki, as they decipher Livingstone’s recently discovered field diary. The diary, written in berry juice on newspaper pages, contains details about his obsessive search for the source of the Nile, thoughts on his wife’s death, and an account of the slaughter of 400 Africans in the village Nyangwe.

The NEH has awarded a number of grants in support of Adrian Wisnicki’s work restoring, preserving, and making accessible this unique resource. The Livingstone Spectral Imaging Project, supported by NEH’s Office of Digital Humanities and Division of Research Programs, utilizes imaging technology to create a digital image archive and online scholarly edition of the field diary. This collaboration between humanities scholars and scientists also developed technology to recover the faded text of the journal. The technology provides a template for the restoration and display of other hard-to-read documents.