Researchers who dug up Richard III's skeleton underneath a parking lot in Leicester last year now report they discovered numerous roundworm eggs in the soil around his pelvis, where his intestines would have been. They compared that to soil samples taken close to Richard's skull and surrounding his grave. There were no eggs near the skull and only traces of eggs in the soil near the grave.
In a study published online Wednesday in the journal Lancet, experts say that suggests the eggs near the skeleton's pelvis were from an infection during the king's life, even though it's unlikely the worms did him any serious damage. In children, roundworm can lead to stunted growth and a reduced IQ but for a well-fed English king, the parasites were just a minor annoyance.
"Richard probably had more than enough food that he could share with his worms," said Piers Mitchell, a professor of biological anthropology at Cambridge University, one of the researchers. Mitchell said it was the first time any English monarch had been shown to have been infected with worms.
Still, the deposed king would have suffered some symptoms of worm infection, which typically occurs after someone eats the eggs in contaminated food. Once the eggs hatch, the larvae travel to the lungs and throat, where they get ingested back down into the small intestines.
"As the worms migrate through the body, they can cause a cough and an unpleasant feeling as the worm is swallowed," Mitchell said. He said the king's doctors wouldn't have linked those symptoms to the worms and probably would have prescribed treatments including bloodletting. Mitchell doubted the worms would have worsened Richard III's spinal deformity; William Shakespeare's play depicts him as a hunchback regent who had his two young nephews murdered so he could claim the English throne.
It's also possible Richard's worms made a gruesome appearance when he died on the battlefield in 1485 as the last English king killed in war. In adults infected with roundworm, traumatic events like car crashes can cause the worms to pop out of peoples' noses and ears.
"The worms get shocked and they move quickly," said Simon Brooker, a professor of epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who was not part of the study. He said it was possible the many blade injuries suffered by Richard before his death could have prompted the worms in his body to make a hasty exit.
Brooker said there are about 820 million people worldwide who are infected with roundworm, who could be cured with a cheap, one-dose pill.
"Worms are a remaining problem today, as they once were even for nobility," Brooker said. "In an ideal world, in the absence of improved sanitation, we would like everyone infected to have as low infection levels as Richard III."
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