The Curious Case of the Patient Who Was Killed by a Corpse

Albert Lowenfels, MD


January 05, 2012

About the Patient

George Edward Stanhope Molyneux Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, commonly referred to as Lord Carnarvon (1855-1923), was a wealthy English aristocrat who, in his 30s, sustained injuries from an automobile crash that impaired his health, making him susceptible to lung infections (see Figure 1). His physician advised him to seek a warmer climate, and Egypt, which at the time was a British protectorate, seemed a logical choice. As a result of this decision, Carnarvon developed a passion for Egyptian archeology. He financed and was actively involved in the original 1922 excavation of King Tutankhamun (forever and popularly known as "King Tut"), repeatedly entering his dusty, hot tomb over a period of several weeks.

Figure 1. Lord Carnarvon, photograph taken during middle age.

The Diagnosis

Lord Carnarvon apparently died after developing septicemia originating in a minor skin infection on his face. However, there has been speculation that Lord Carnarvon may have been infected with aspergillosis during his many visits to King Tut's tomb. Before his death, Lord Carnarvon was reported to have suffered from ocular and sinus-type pain, consistent with a diagnosis of Aspergillus infection of the sinuses.[1]Aspergillosis and other organisms have been detected in Egyptian mummies.[2] The 5-month period between Lord Carnarvon's first entry into the tomb and his death is also consistent with this infection, which can have a prolonged incubation period.

Could Lord Carnarvon's Death Have Been Prevented With Current Therapy?

Assuming that the death was related to septicemia, it would most likely have arisen from a cutaneous infection, either from Staphylococcus or, perhaps, group A streptococcus. Today, after appropriate sensitivity testing, an appropriate antibiotic could be found that would have controlled the initial infection. Even an application of an antibiotic ointment to the original skin infection might have avoided the subsequent progression of disease. If, as has been suggested, Lord Carnarvon died from aspergillosis, there are various antifungal drugs available as treatment options.[3]

Other Shaving-Related Deaths

Shaving, performed as a daily ritual by millions of men, now seems utterly safe, but in addition to Lord Carnarvon, there have been several other documented shaving-related deaths:

John Thoreau, brother of the famous writer, Henry Thoreau, died of tetanus in 1841 after he inadvertently cut himself while shaving.

Alexander Scriabin, the Russian composer, died in 1915 after sustaining a small laceration while shaving.

Michael Farley a New York State Congressman died in 1921, not from a shaving cut, but from anthrax contracted from infected animal hair bristles in his shaving brush.

Finally there is the unforgettable Sweeney Todd, the "demon barber of fleet street," whose shaving victims were quickly converted into meat pies.

Shaving has not always been such a safe procedure!


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