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Riddled with roundworms, Richard III's remains held embarrassing secret

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
September 4th, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

According to playwright William Shakespeare, British monarch Richard III was a dastardly, Machiavellian hunchback. Scientists now say the favored historical villain had bad personal hygiene as well - his remains betray the fact he was plagued with intestinal parasites.

LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Uncovered at the Grey Friars Church excavation site in Leicester in September of last year, Richard III's remains reveal he suffered from roundworms.

"This is the first time anyone has studied a king [or] noble in Britain to look for ancient intestinal parasites," Piers Mitchell, a paleoparasitologist and orthopedic surgeon said in an email. A sample taken from the king's remains have found the eggs of Ascaris lumbricoides, a simple roundworm.

"[T]hey 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," Mitchell explained. Perhaps "salad vegetables became contaminated with eggs and were then eaten," he suggested.

An analysis included an image of isolated roundworm egg seen under an optical microscope.

"Despite Richard's noble background, it appears that his lifestyle did not completely protect him from intestinal parasite infection, which would have been very common at the time," Jo Appleby, lecturer in human bioarcheology at the University of Leicester said in a release.

Roundworm eggs were not found at other locations on the site, suggesting the worms were buried with the king. Had the king sought treatment, it would have involved the medieval practices of  "bloodletting, modification of the diet, and medicines to get rid of the excess phlegm and so return humeral balance to normal," Mitchell explained.

Poor sanitation is a major contributor to spreading infection. While the parasite is "uncommon" in the U.S., it afflicts up to 1.2 billion people worldwide. Roundworms claim 60,000 lives, mainly children, every year.

Roundworms, tapeworms, hookworms and whipworms have been infecting humans for thousands of years. Among the oldest evidence, 10,000-year-old human fecal droppings from caves in Utah yielded traces of pinworm infection.

In a related bit of history, researchers in June of this year showed that Richard the Lionheart's crusading armies were being cut down from within - waging and losing a war with gut parasites on their travels.

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