Augustus Bozzi Granville’s sensational autopsy of an Egyptian mummy, a study that he presented to Britain’s Royal Society in 1825, was a trail-blazing first in the field, which laid the foundations for the scientific study of ancient mummies. But his conclusion – that the mummy died of ovarian cancer – was wrong, according to a follow-up analysis performed by researchers at University College London (Proc. R. Soc. B, doi: 10.1098/rspb.2009.1484).
Granville did correctly identify a tumour in the unfortunate woman, named Irtyersenu, who died aged 50 in Thebes around 600 BC. But studies in 1976 and 2000 suggest that this tumour was benign. Instead, Irtyersenu likely died of tuberculosis, say Helen Donoghue and her fellow researchers.
New Scientist notes that because the mummy is covered with a waxy substance, it has been particularly hard to extract DNA from. Nonetheless, the team found DNA from Mycobacterium tuberculosis in tissue from the lungs, bone and gall bladder, and also spotted acids specific to that bacterium’s cell wall in lung tissue and thigh bones.
The new findings don’t overshadow Granville’s achievement, Donoghue tells the BBC. “He was remarkably careful and thorough. It was the first time anybody had tried to do a medical autopsy on an Egyptian mummy. Before that it was all about their entertainment value – it was a bit like a circus – and most of the interest was in the jewellery that was wrapped up in the bandages."
“TB the culprit in the great mummy whodunit” (AP)
“Dr Granville’s mummy was killed by TB, not a tumour, researchers reveal” (The Times)
“Fresh autopsy of Egyptian mummy shows cause of death was TB not cancer” (The Guardian)
Image credit Royal Society