The first scientific autopsy on an ancient Egyptian mummy, performed back in 1825, might have botched the cause of death. The original ruling was that the mummified woman, Irtyersenu, died of ovarian cancer, but a new study strongly suggests she died of tuberculosis [BBC News]. The original autopsy was performed by one Dr. Augustus Bozzi Granville, a surgeon and a gynecologist (and apparently a fan of infectious diseases; he personally overcame bouts with malaria, bubonic plague and yellow fever).
Irtyersenu is a remarkable specimen in that she was mummified with her organs intact. Most mummies have their organs removed or dissolved inside their bodies prior to mummification. Dr. Granville was correct in detecting that the mummified woman had an ovarian tumor—but later studies determined it was benign. Granville studied her pelvic bone and also determined the woman to be an overweight mother between the ages of 50-55 when she died.
The new study, published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, found that the woman’s lungs were inflamed. Scientists suspected tuberculosis was the COD since it was widespread in Egypt at the time. To confirm, they turned to molecular biology, searched for a short repetitive section of DNA from Mycobacterium tuberculosis, [and] they identified the organism in tissue from the lungs, bone and gall bladder.They also found biomarkers specific to the cell wall of the bacterium in the lungs and bones [New Scientist]. That indicates that the TB spread to the rest of her body—a death sentence in ancient Egypt.
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Image: flickr / ChiBart