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

Albert Lowenfels, MD


January 05, 2012

About the Corpse

King Tutankhamun's Life and Health Status

Around 1324 BC, when 10 years of age, Tutankhamun, popularly called King Tut, became Egypt's ruler, reigning as Pharaoh for 9 years (see Figure 2). He died when he was only 19 years of age and was buried in a secret, well-hidden crypt along with a unique collection of priceless objects. Now, thanks to modern molecular technology, we have detailed information about the illnesses he suffered during his life, and the probable contributory factors leading to his death.

Figure 2. Gold mask, representing King Tutankhamun, at The Egyptian Museum.

Genetic analysis conducted in 2007-2009[4,5] strongly suggests that King Tut's parents were brother and sister. Could this incestuous relationship have been another factor leading to his early demise? This seems plausible, but since incestuous marriages are so rare, there is limited information about life expectancy of the offspring.

Detailed analysis of the bones of his left foot revealed several deformities, including aseptic bone necrosis of the metatarsals known as Köhler disease II, or Freiberg-Köhler syndrome.[6] He also had a cleft palate, mild kyphoscoliosis, and a leg fracture. The disabilities of his foot would have impaired his gait, explaining why so many canes were found in his tomb.

Genetic testing also revealed an unexpected finding: malaria tropica, a severe form of this infectious disease. Malaria has been suspected to exist in other ancient populations, but evidence for this malady had not been previously identified in Egyptian mummies. In addition to being found in King Tut, malarial DNA was also confirmed in several other mummies of the same kindred, implying that malaria was endemic in the region during this period of Egyptian history.

In addition, the examination of the exhumed body of King Tut revealed evidence of a skull fracture, which is consistent with the popular belief that he had been murdered. However, the skull injuries probably did not occur at the time of death, but during the hasty excavation in 1922, when the mummy was first discovered. The cause of King Tut's death was probably multifactorial, resulting from a combination of a weakened immune system, underlying malaria, and a fall, resulting in a fractured leg. All of these factors may have contributed to fatal sepsis.

How Would King Tut Be Treated Today?

Today, with universal restrictions on sibling marriage, King Tut would not have been the offspring of such a close incestuous relationship and, therefore, his health might have been more robust. His leg fracture could have been easily managed, probably with internal fixation. During King Tut's time, treatment for malaria was unknown, but now, in addition to protective bed netting, which would certainly have been used by the royal family, prophylactic drugs would have reduced the likelihood of contracting this disease and, if he did, agents, such as atovaquone-proguanil and artemether-lumefantrine, would have been effective therapeutic options. However, even today, malaria persists as a major cause of mortality, accounting for about 1 million deaths worldwide every year.

The Pharaoh's Curse: Fact or Fiction?

Perhaps as a deterrent to grave robbers, some Egyptian tombs contain warnings threatening dire consequences to persons disturbing the buried remains. Such a warning had not been found in King Tut's tomb, but the idea of the mummy reaching out to kill the discoverer, the "curse of the pharaoh," was popularized by reporters after Lord Carnarvon's unexpected death, which occurred so soon after the discovery of the spectacular grave site. Even Sir Conan Doyle, the author of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, encouraged the belief that Carnarvon's death was caused by "elementals" that had been created by Tutankhamun's priests. He also believed that an Egyptian curse was responsible for the death of a friend. There is no evidence to support this myth, and, of the many persons involved in the original exploration of the tomb, Lord Carnarvon is the only one whose death occurred shortly after the tomb was opened. Howard Carter, who performed most of the actual archeological work, died in 1939, many years after working on the tomb.[7]

Nevertheless, "the curse of the pharaoh" has been used in the scientific literature to support the hypothesis that an organism of high parasitic virulence is correlated with prolonged parasitic survival.[8,9] If this hypothesis is correct, it lends credence to the idea that a persistent, highly virulent organism lying dormant in King Tut's tomb for centuries was responsible for Lord Carnarvon's death. If so, then we can blame an infectious agent, rather than King Tut's priests, for the putative "curse."


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