King Richard III suffered a roundworm infection when he died, a report in medical journal The Lancet reveals centuries after the monarch’s passing.
Roundworm is an intestinal parasite passed along in the fashion of most infections of its ilk — a disgusting but overly common overlapping Venn diagram of consuming things and excreting them. Before modern sanitation developments, many of our ancestors succumbed to disease transmitted via behaviors related to (for lack of a more delicate description) eating and pooping — and even the most powerful and wealthy could not avoid a simple roundworm infection.
The roundworm findings were discussed by Piers Mitchell, a paleoparasitologist and orthopedic surgeon at the University of Cambridge who talked about the Richard III analysis published in The Lancet.
Mitchell illustrates an example of how roundworm could have reached the King’s internal organs, surmising “salad vegetables became contaminated with eggs and were then eaten” due to a lack of handwashing practices.
“This is the first time anyone has studied a king [or] noble in Britain to look for ancient intestinal parasites… they may have been spread to Richard by cooks who did not wash their hands after using the toilet, or by the use of human feces from towns to fertilize fields nearby.”
The roundworm discovery would have been treated even in noblemen, Mitchell explains, through primitive means, and he adds that “bloodletting, modification of the diet, and medicines to get rid of the excess phlegm and so return humoral balance to normal” were treatments thought at the time to be effective in ridding the body of such parasitical plagues.
The roundworm samples were identified as ascaris lumbricoides, but Richard III is far from the earliest known human to suffer the infection — samples from Peru dating back more than 2,000 years show that our ancestors carried the parasites in the B.C. era as well.