Posted by: Hourglass PJ18 SEP 2013
My continuing interest in the discovery of the remains of King Richard III (see also Hourglass, PJ 2013;290:580) caused me to stop to read a small article in The Lancet, which described some new findings that the king had been infected with roundworms.
According to this article, following the excavation of Richard’s remains, samples of sediment were taken from the sacral area of his pelvis, and control samples from his skull and the soil outside the grave. Analysis involved micro-sieving the sediment, followed by light microscopy. The results showed the presence of multiple roundworm eggs (Ascaris lumbricoides) in the sacral sample where the intestines would have been during the king’s life.
The control sample from the skull was negative for parasite eggs and the control sample from outside the grave showed only tiny amounts of parasite egg contamination in the soil. Roundworm is spread by faecal contamination of food with dirty hands or use of faeces as a crop fertiliser.
No other species of intestinal parasite was found in any of the three samples. This is perhaps surprising given that past research into human parasites in Britain has shown several species to have been present before the medieval period (Richard III ruled England from 1483 to 1485), including whipworm, beef or pork tapeworm, fish tapeworm and liver fluke as well as roundworm.
The nobility would have been expected to eat meat and fish regularly, so the lack of tapeworm eggs in this sediment might suggest that the king ate his food thoroughly cooked, so preventing the transmission of these parasites.