Tuesday, July 06, 2010

HoS Micropost: King Tut, again

Posted by Darin Hayton on 07/06 at 10:38 PM

In February, researchers announced that they had determined the cause of King Tut’s death. Forensic investigations seemed to point to malaria. A letter published recently in JAMA (Christian Timmann, “King Tutankhamun’s Family DemiseJAMA 303(24) (23/30 June 2010): 2473) looks at the original research and suggests that the cause of death was not malaria but sickle cell disease. The evidence for this conclusion is the “translucent bone areas of 2 metatarsals of the left foot and shortening of the second toe, likely signs of osteonecrosis, osteomyelitis, or ulcerative osteoarthritis.” According to the author, these are compatible with lesions seen in sickle cell disease.

Physicians and historians of science seemed perpetually driven to determine the “correct diagnosis” of some historical disease or the “most likely cause of death.” By far the most sustained efforts have been directed at various plagues, from the plague in 5th-century B.C.E. Athens described by Thucydides (according to a recent article, it was typhoid fever), to Justinian’s plague in 541-542 C.E., to the medieval plagues beginning in 1348 and lasting into the 18th century.1 Such efforts are not confined to epidemics. Individual illnesses are just as likely to attract attention, see for example Hairy Crustaceous Substances in the Urine Revealed.

It is unclear what the historical payoff is in such efforts. The historiography that undergirds attempts to find the actual disease has been soundly criticized. For a critical review of the efforts to show that the medieval plagues were caused by yersenia pestis, see Samuel Cohn, “The Black Death: End of a ParadigmAmerican Historical Review 107 (2002) and his Black Death Transformed (OUP, 2002). For a more philosophical critique, this one aimed at the scholarship that identifies the French Disease with syphilis, see J. Arrizabalaga, J. Henderson, and R. French, The Great Pox. The French Disease in Renaissance Europe (Yale, 1997). Even if we could overcome the difficulties with the evidence and bridge the hermeneutical gulfs, what benefits accrue from searching for and claiming to find the actual disease? Why do we care what caused King Tut’s death or what bacterium caused the medieval plagues (assuming a bacterium was the material cause)?

1On the plague of Athens, see M. J. Papgrigorakis et al., “DNA Examination of Ancient Dental Pulp Incriminates Typhoid Fever as a Probably Cause of the Plague of AthensInternational Journal of Infectious Diseases 10 (2006): 206-14. On Justinian’s plague, see the recent book: William Rosen, Justinian’s Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe (2007). Seemingly every book on the medieval plague claims it was bubonic plague. Similarly, books and articles on the French Pox argue that it was syphilis.

Tags: historiography, king tut