Richard III ‘had roundworm infection’

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Richard III had a roundworm infection, according to new research.

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Soil samples taken from the skeleton’s pelvis and skull, as well as from the soil surrounding the grave, revealed multiple roundworm eggs where the intestines would have been situated in life. 

The body of Richard III, king of England from 1483 to 1485, was discovered in 2012 by archaeologists at the University of Leicester. Scientists have since been undertaking analysis of the remains.

In research published in The Lancet, researchers based at the University of Leicester and the University of Cambridge explained multiple roundworm eggs were found in a soil sample taken from the Richard’s pelvis.

However, there was no sign of eggs in soil from the skull, and very few eggs in the soil that surrounded the grave.

This, researchers maintain, suggests the eggs found in the pelvis area resulted from a genuine roundworm infection during his life, rather than from external contamination by the later dumping of human waste in the area.

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Dr Piers Mitchell, who teaches biological anthropology at the University of Cambridge and who led the roundworms project, told historyextra: “Roundworms are 1ft long and sit in the intestines. If you have a small load you may not know.

“In the medieval period people did not realise roundworms were a living parasite. They thought they were the result of your four humours – blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile – being out of balance.

“Had a doctor known about Richard III’s roundworms they would probably have carried out bloodletting, [the opening of a vein to allow blood to flow out, or the use of leeches], modified his diet or used medicine.

“It tends to be children and people who don’t have a good diet who get roundworms. Richard was a king so would probably have had a reasonable diet.

“We don’t know for sure, but it was less likely he would have suffered malnutrition as a result of his roundworms.”

Dr Mitchell said researchers were unable to establish whether Richard would have experienced discomfort as a result of his roundworms.

“You cannot extrapolate the number of worms from the number of eggs, as rain may have washed some of them away,” he said.

“If he had been in, say, a tomb, less parasites may have been lost.

“But most people with roundworms today don’t get pain in the abdomen – it is not a painful disease but a more subtle, chronic, long-term disease.

“But the findings still tell us interesting things about the royal household. Roundworms are spread through the fecal contamination of food, so perhaps chefs were not washing their hands after going to the toilet.

“They can also be spread through soil, so Richard may have eaten salad leaves contaminated from the soil.

“What’s also interesting is we did not find other sorts of parasites, such as pork tapeworm or beef tapeworm. This may suggest that his food was being thoroughly cooked. Cooking would have killed off other worms.”

Professor Michael Hicks, head of history at the University of Winchester, told historyextra: “I don’t think this finding is terribly surprising because clearly there was much less hygiene in the medieval period. People did not wash a great deal, and if they did it was not with clean water.

“It would be interesting – and the researchers do not tell us – whether this sort of finding is revealed by the excavation of ordinary people also.

“I assume everyone in the medieval period had some form of parasite. People were in a constant state of having minor sores and parasites, because short of cutting it out there was nothing you could do about it. There were no antibiotics.

“I suppose what’s interesting is the fact that being noble and having high quality food did not protect you [from parasites].

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“The finding might be regarded as significant in that even people at the top level suffered.”