Page last updated at 23:00 GMT, Tuesday, 29 September 2009 00:00 UK

Mummy autopsy result 'was wrong'

Granville's mummy
Ovarian cancer was originally thought to be the cause of death

The first scientific autopsy on an ancient Egyptian mummy probably got the cause of death wrong, research suggests.

Dr Augustus Bozzi Granville caused a sensation when he described the autopsy to the Royal Society of London in 1825.

He concluded the mummified woman, Irtyersenu, died of ovarian cancer.

But a University College London study, published in the Royal Society journal Biological Sciences, strongly suggests she died of tuberculosis.

Italian-born Dr Granville, a surgeon and a gynaecologist, had practised medicine across the world, and had survived malaria, bubonic plague and yellow fever.

[Dr Granville] was remarkably careful and thorough. It was the first time anybody had tried to do a medical autopsy on an Egyptian mummy.
Dr Helen Donoghue

In the mid 19th century interest in Egyptian mummies was intense.

So when one of Dr Granville's patients told him he had brought back a mummy from the necropolis at Thebes, still sealed in its coffin, he jumped at the chance to investigate further.

He carried out a long-lasting and exhaustive study of the tissues.

By studying the thinning of the pelvic bone, he established the woman was 50-55 when she died. He also determined that she was a mother, and overweight.

He then found that she had an ovarian tumour, and concluded that this - a condition he called ovarian dropsy - probably caused her death.

However, the tumour has subsequently been found to be benign, and the UCL team believe the key to the woman's death was the fact that her lungs were inflamed.

Tuberculosis was widespread in ancient Egypt and can cause these symptoms.

Tissue analysis

Following Dr Granville's autopsy only fragments of the mummy's tissues remained.

But analysis by the UCL team has found traces of Mycobacterium tuberculosis - the bacterium which causes TB - in lung, gall bladder and bone samples.

Researcher Dr Helen Donoghue said Dr Granville had failed to pin down exactly how the mummy had been preserved, and the exact technique remains a mystery today.

She said extracting DNA from the tissue samples had proved extraordinarily difficult.

She was full of praise for Dr Granville's work: "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."

Print Sponsor

Patient aged 2,500 in for tests
30 Jul 09 |  London
CT scan unravels mummy's secrets
10 Dec 07 |  London
Cairo toe earliest fake body bit
27 Jul 07 |  Health

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Sign in

BBC navigation

Copyright © 2019 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific