Roundworm Discovered In Remains Of King Richard III
September 4, 2013

Roundworm Discovered In Remains Of King Richard III

Lawrence LeBlond for - Your Universe Online

Researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Leicester have uncovered more evidence about the life and death of Richard III.

Richard III, the famed “king under the car park,” was discovered buried in an untidy grave by researchers a year ago and was exhumed from his unmarked burial site this past July during an extensive excavation of the Grey Friars church site.

A new study of his remains has revealed that the last Plantagenet King had suffered from a roundworm infection at the time of his death. The study was led by Dr. Piers Mitchell of Cambridge and was recently published in the journal The Lancet.

Dr. Mitchell and colleagues found multiple roundworm (Ascaris lumbricoides) eggs in the soil which had been situated around the pelvis bone of Richard III. Roundworm infects humans when the eggs are ingested via contaminated food, water or even soil. Once the eggs enter the body they hatch into larvae and enter the lungs to mature. They then crawl up through the airways to the throat to be swallowed back into the intestines, where they can grow into adults measuring more than a foot long.

Since his unearthing in July 2013, researchers have carefully examined and analyzed the remains of Richard III in an attempt to shed more information on the life and death of the controversial king, who ruled England from 1483 until his untimely death in 1485.

Dr. Mitchell, of the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at Cambridge, used a powerful microscope to analyze soil samples taken from the skeleton’s pelvis and skull, as well as soil samples taken from the immediate area within the grave. The analysis revealed the roundworm eggs in an area that would have been consistent with where Richard III’s intestines would have been situated.

Dr. Mitchell noted, however, that no eggs were discovered in the soil around the skull and very few eggs in the soil elsewhere within the grave, suggesting that the eggs in the pelvis area resulted from a real roundworm infection, rather than from external contamination that may have occurred later when human waste would have been dumped in the area.

Roundworm is one of the most common health conditions in the world, affecting up to a quarter of all people globally; although, the infection is rare in the UK today.

“Our results show that Richard was infected with roundworms in his intestines, although no other species of intestinal parasite were present in the samples we studied. We would expect nobles of this period to have eaten meats such as beef, pork and fish regularly, but there was no evidence for the eggs of the beef, pork or fish tapeworm. This may suggest that his food was cooked thoroughly, which would have prevented the transmission of these parasites,” Dr. Mitchell said in a statement.

“Despite Richard's noble background, it appears that his lifestyle did not completely protect him from intestinal parasite infection, which would have been very common at the time,” noted Dr. Jo Appleby, Lecturer in Human Bioarchaeology at Leicester.

"It might seem surprising that Richard - who had a very noble background - was infected with roundworm, but this is something that you can pick up very easily through faecal contamination," Dr. Appleby told BBC News.

According to information from the CDC, an adult female roundworm can produce as many as 200,000 eggs per day. In large infections, the worms can cause peritonitis, enlargement of the liver or spleen or intestinal blockage.

But it seems that Richard III escaped infection of a host of other parasites that would have been very rampant in England during the fifteenth century.

Common parasites of the time were whipworm, beef tapeworm, pork tapeworm, fish tapeworm and liver fluke, most transmitted through raw or undercooked infected meats. But none of these parasites were found within Richard’s remains, or within the grave.

"We would expect nobles of this period to have eaten meats such as beef, pork and fish regularly," Dr. Mitchell said in an AFP interview. "This finding might suggest that his food was cooked thoroughly, which would have prevented the transmission of these parasites."

Simon Brooker, from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, said it is very plausible that Richard III had roundworm. He explained that research from other historical sites have also turned up evidence of roundworm infections.

"Where you've got a large number of worms combined with poor nutritional intake, the consequences can be quite severe,” Brooker told BBC News. "I expect Richard III's exposure would have been low compared to the people he ruled over. It would have been somewhat of a nuisance rather than having had any severe consequences."