King Tut was buried in his condo made of stone-a after succumbing to the severest form of malaria, malaria tropica, say preeminent medical archaeologists in this week’s JAMA. The boy king also had a form of osteochondrosis—namely, avascular necrosis of the second and third metatarsal bones (in the foot). The bone disease, which probably caused limping, explains the afterlife canes placed in Tut’s tomb.
The conclusions about Tut’s medical problems were made on the basis of an unprecedented combination of anthropologic, genetic, and radiologic studies and free access to the mummified remains of Tut and those of other Egyptian royalty. The researchers propose that the immediate cause of Tut’s death was likely a leg fracture (possibly from a fall), which precipitated a series of life-threatening events in the already medically compromised teenager.
Crashing the curiosity party, U Michigan’s Howard Markel raises the sticky issue of ethics when conducting medical examinations on historical subjects in an accompanying JAMA editorial. “Are major historical figures entitled to the same privacy rules that private citizens enjoy even after death?” he asks. While Markel acknowledges, “All historians are guilty of enjoying reading the mail and personal materials of others,” he advises,
[B]efore disturbing the dead with the penetrating wonders of 21st-century medical science, it is essential to follow the lead of these authors by pondering all the ethical implications of such inquiries to avoid opening a historical Pandora’s box.
Steve Martin, who wrote that Tut “gave his life for tourism,” would probably concur.
Photo of banner advertising the 2008 tour of Tut’s tomb artifacts from http://www.atlantaga.gov/media/citynewsbytes_040808.aspx.