LONDON – An autopsy that started in 1825 has finally reached a conclusion, determining that the cause of the death of an ancient Egyptian mummy was tuberculosis.
The mummy, of a woman named ‘Irtyersenu’, who died in Thebes around 600 BC, aged about 50, was discovered by
It was the first mummy to be subjected to a scientific autopsy, and Granville concluded that she died of ovarian cancer.
But around 20 years ago, the remains of the mummy were rediscovered and subjected to new tests.
These suggested that the ovarian tumor was benign, and that the mummy also had malaria and signs of inflammation in the lungs, which could have been caused by pneumonia or tuberculosis.
The mystery has been particularly difficult to resolve because of the way the body was mummified.
In standard mummification, organs were either removed and preserved independently, or a chemical enema was inserted into the anus to dissolve the organs in situ.
In contrast, the mummy of Irtyersenu contains organs, but the whole body seems to be coated in a mysterious waxy substance.
“The material is exceedingly difficult to work with,” said
“It is soft and brown, and when you try to extract anything there’s an oily substance there that interferes with molecular analysis,” she said.
This had made it near impossible to extract DNA from the mummy until now.
But, according to a report in New Scientist, when Donoghue and colleagues from the University of Birmingham, UK, combined DNA amplification with a recently developed technique to search for a short repetitive section of DNA from Mycobacterium tuberculosis, 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.
“Together, these results suggest that TB infection had spread from her lungs to the rest of her body – so-called disseminated TB. In ancient Egypt, this would have been fatal,” said Donoghue.
The team found no further evidence of malaria, and the test that originally detected it has since been withdrawn as it can sometimes cross-react with other substances.