19th Century Mummy Autopsy Flubbed the Cause of Death

By Brett Israel | September 30, 2009 6:02 pm

mummy_ebThe 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 bodya death sentence in ancient Egypt.

Related Content:
DISCOVER: Making a Modern Mummy
DISCOVER: How to Unwrap a Mummy–and Diagnose What Killed It
80beats: Dinosaur “Mummy” Reveals a Creature With Bird-Like Skin
80beats: Iceman Mummy Lost Darwin’s Game: He Seems to Have No Modern Kin

Image: flickr / ChiBart

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Health & Medicine
  • Wil Henderson

    Curious if one can tell from bones if someone had died from a ruptured spleen ? Great grandfathers supposedly died from a ruptured spleen after a victory in a sanctioned bare fist fight a few weeks later waiting for a historical Ritzville WA doctor to return from vacation was the word through family though the records said TB .
    He was buried in a poverty grave in Ritzville thus unable to locate with grandfather one of 12 surviving children passing in 2009


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