The Grave : The Ultimate House Call

It's not hogwarts and dragon pox. But a recently published paper offers some great scientific wizardry. The subject: King George III-his red urine, his dusty old hair and his madness. For decades, it's been relatively well accepted that the British monarch suffered from a metabolic disorder called porphyria, whose symptoms include abdominal discomfort and dark urine. But was porphyria alone responsible for the king's severe bouts of insanity?

Martin J. Warren, a biochemist at Britain's University of Kent, wanted to find out. Using gloves, tweezers and a hightech spectrometer, Warren and colleagues analyzed five of the king's hair fibers, preserved in an envelope since his death in 1820 and donated by London's Science Museum. The result: staggeringly high levels of arsenic, which Warren believes exacerbated the king's illness and may have triggered the attacks. No, there's no murder mystery here. Instead, an 18th century medicine contaminated with arsenic and used to treat the king's "evil humors" is the likely culprit. The biochemical treasure hunt? "Good fun," says Warren.

George III isn't the only dead person to go in for a physical. Scientists love to dig up old bones and medical records to reassess the health of histor-ical figures. At the University of Maryland School of Medicine's annual Clinico--pathological Conference, does have proposed diagnoses for everyone from Alexander the Great (typhoid fever complicated by Guillain-Barre syndrome) to Beethoven (syphilis), Christopher Colum-bus (severe arthritis caused by an infection) and Florence Nightingale (bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorders).

There isn't always a consensus. At the first conference, in 1995, a researcher concluded that Edgar Allan Poe had suc-cumbed to rabies. But Philip Mackowiak, the program's di-rector, says that Poe's doctor embellished his medical records. Mackowiak's diagnosis: alcohol withdrawal. Then there's Napoleon. His 1821 autopsy said stomach cancer. In 1961, a Swedish dentist suggested death by arsenic poison-ing. A 2004 study blamed over-enthusiastic doctors (one problem: too many enemas). Then, just this spring, Swiss researchers reported that they'd studied 12 pairs of the emperor's trousers (worn before and during exile) and calculated a pattern of weight change that supported the initial autopsy: Napoleon's "final defeat," they wrote, was likely caused by gastric cancer.

Genomic advances could help solve other cases. Did Abraham Lincoln have Marfan syndrome, characterized by unusually long limbs? His DNA, preserved in 140 year-old bone and hair, could one day provide the evidence, says Dr. Philip Reilly, head of Interleukin Genetics. Until then, may he rest in peace.

Source : Newsweek

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