Mystery of ‘Dr Granville’s Mummy’ finally resolved

1 October 2009

  • Press Release

A famous Egyptian mummy died from tuberculosis (TB) rather than a tumour of the ovary, according to new research led by UCL scientists.

The research, published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, gives a definitive answer to a very old mystery.

Dr Granville's drawings

Dr Augustus Bozzi Granville (1783-1872) caused a sensation when he described the first scientific autopsy on an ancient Egyptian mummy to the Royal Society of London in 1825. The remains are those of a woman, Irtyersenu, aged about 50, from the necropolis of Thebes and dated to about 600 BC. They are currently housed in the British Museum.

Irtyersenu had an ovarian tumour and Dr Granville concluded that this caused her death. However, the tumour was later discovered to be benign, so was not fatal.

A collaborative team, led by Dr Helen Donoghue and Dr Mark Spigelman, UCL Centre for Infectious Diseases & International Health, has now fully re-examined the remains of the mummy. They found DNA and cell wall molecules of Mycobacterium tuberculosis in lung, gall bladder and bone samples and conclude that tuberculosis, which was widespread in ancient Egypt, is the likely major cause of Irtyersenu’s death.


Dr Donoghue said: “The original autopsy by Dr Granville was of great public interest because it was carried out when mummy unwrapping was a popular pastime in aristocratic circles. Dr Granville was an eminent gynaecologist and his identification of ‘ovarian dropsy’, or cancer, was the first diagnosis in an Egyptian mummy and was also the earliest report of this condition, still cited in text books on the subject.

“He could not have known back in 1825 that the tumour he recognised was benign, as shown in more recent studies, and could therefore not have been the cause of death. We found Mycobacterium tuberculosis DNA in a number of areas, but the greatest quantity was in the lung tissue which suggests that Irtyersenu had pulmonary tuberculosis that had disseminated to other sites in the body.

“We examine ancient human remains for the markers of TB because it helps to aid our understanding of prehistoric tuberculosis and how it evolved. This then informs understanding of modern TB, which still remains one of the world’s major killers, and the development of more effective treatments.”

Image: Dr Granville's original copperplate drawings of the mummy (Credit: Royal Society)

Media contact: Ruth Howells

 


UCL Context

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology houses an estimated 80,000 objects, making it one of the greatest collections of Egyptian and Sudanese archaeology in the world. 

The Petrie Museum is attached to the UCL Institute of Archaeology, one of the world’s largest and most diverse archaeological departments. It offers a wide range of undergraduate and postgraduate courses, including courses on the archaeology of Egypt and Sudan; museum and artefact studies and conservation.