Did Agrippina poison the Roman Emperor Claudius? Was General George Armstrong Custer mentally sound when he ordered the 7th Cavalry to attack at the Little Big Horn River? History is full of medical mysteries. After all, everyone has to die of something. But modern medical practitioners have actually found clues to the progress of diseases that still afflict mankind today by studying ancient sources who recorded the afflictions and demise of peoples of the past.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Fluorosis a problem for ancient Palmyrans and Herculaneum victims

A history resource article by  © 2015

The great archway leading to the grand collonade in Roman Palmyra.  Image
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
A study suggests Palmyra's waters may have been ruinous in the end for the city's inhabitants. Palmyra, today, is a World Heritage Site, a designation bestowed by the United Nation Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 1998. About 140 miles southeast of Damascus, the trading town known as Tadmor (also spelled Tadmur) to the ancients, later Palmyra, had been a center of trading since around 2000 B.C.E. But the town really bustled during the Roman Empire, and was filled with magnificent buildings throughout the 1st and 2nd century, beginning with the reign of Roman emperor Hadrian in 129 A.D.

Hadrian renamed the oasis town "Palmyra Hadriana." Modest guys, those Roman emperors. The city's wealth faded with the decline of Roman influence in ancient Syria.

Starting in 1990, Japanese archaeologists began excavating the southeast necropolis of Palmyra and examined remains from the Roman era. Despite Palmyra's prosperity, "skeletal remains uncovered from the underground tombs of Palmyra have been found to retain an arthropathy of the joints, especially in the knee joint, bone fracture, marked bone lipping, spur formation, and eburnation (smoothed bone cavities)," reports the team led by Kiyohide Saito of the Archaeological Institute of Kashihara in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

Funerary Portrait of Yarkhai, Son of Ogga and Balya his Daughter
from Palmyra in Roman Syria 150-200 CE Limestone.  Photographed at the
Portland (Oregon) Art Museum by Mary Harrsch © 2012.
Fluoride in small concentrations is thought to deter microbes that cause tooth decay, the reason why about 66% of public water supplies in the United States are now fluoridated, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the Palmyrans' symptoms, along with discolored teeth, point to "fluorosis," a skeletal and enamel-damaging syndrome caused by ingesting too much fluoride over a long time, the researchers note. Looking at two large tombs for example, 25 of 33 individuals (76%) had discolored teeth in one, and 45 out of 65 (69%) had discolored teeth in the other.

Palmyrans drank, and still drink, water from wells tapped from ground water by long tunnels called "qanats" (an excellent Scrabble word). The area's geology and water table has been stable for about 7000 years, meaning water conditions now aren't greatly different from those during Roman times. In a bid to estimate the fluoride burden suffered by the town's ancient inhabitants, the researchers analyzed the water from these wells. Fluoride levels were as high as three parts per million in the water, a level that a National Academy of Sciences report in March warned could lead to fluorosis.

Archaeologists also ground up seven discolored teeth from tomb inhabitants, and compared them to seven others without discoloration, to reveal their fluoride concentration. In a chemical reaction, fluoride tends to replace some calcium in tooth enamel, making overexposure to fluoride particularly worrisome for children with growing teeth and bones. The ground-up teeth revealed that in the most discolored ones, about 22% of the calcium had been replaced by fluoride. "Thus, it was possible to directly verify that the ancient inhabitants of Palmyra did suffer from fluorosis," they conclude.

Update, 2/19/2015:

Vesuvius still hovers threateningly over the remains
of Herculaneum near Naples, Italy.
Photo by Mary Harrsch © 2007.
In 1981 when skeletal remains of victims of the Vesuvius eruption were found in the boat chambers on the shore of Herculaneum, researchers were provided with another opportunity to study dental conditions of Roman residents in a different ancient setting. In The Lancet, researchers Gino Fornaciari, M. Rognini and M. Torino reported finding only 3.8% of teeth recovered from 41 adults and 12 children damaged from tooth decay.

"This percentage is very low for both modern and ancient populations, in which values were between 8.5%, as in classic Magna Graecia and 11.4%, as in Roman Britain," the researchers stated.

However, the researchers also discovered a high percentage of individuals with calcium-deficient tooth enamel - a condition often resulting from starvation at an early age but also found in well nourished individuals suffering from fluorosis.

"To elucidate this hypothesis, we examined thin sections of permanent teeth enamel (first molar) from 8 individuals found in the Herculaneum arches site and from a present-day patient from Pisa without evidence of fluorosis, as control," the researchers explained, "Enamel was analysed by energy dispersion system (EDS) with an SEM (Jeol) 6400 connected to a microanalysis system (EDS) (Noran-Tracor) with a detection of Z-MAX 30. Enamel fluorine concentrations were greater than 10-fold higher than normal (1500-3600 parts per million [ppm]) were recorded in 6 individuals."

Skeletal remains of 32 victims awaiting evacuation in the boat chambers of
Herculaneum.  Image courtesy of Tom Huesing via Flickr.
However, the condition was not found uniformly throughout all individuals in the sample and no fluorine was found in soil samples. But, researchers did find a strong concentration of fluorine in the water-bearing stratum of Herculaneum (3-8 mg/mL), with a calculated intake of 11.4-19.0 mg a day per person at the time of the volcanic eruption.

Researchers concluded that some of the sampled remains may have been visitors to the area, since the Roman aristocracy maintained vacation villas in the area.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Mary Queen of Scots Miscarriage Points to Collusion in Death of Lord Darnley

Mary Queen of Scots at Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum in
London.  Photographed by Mary Harrsch © 2006
A history resource article by  © 2015

Interesting article in the Times Online about research by modern gynecologists:

"Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, was an “adulteress and liar” who plotted to kill her husband in order to marry her lover, a study by modern gynecologists has suggested.

An intriguing medical analysis claims that Mary, the cousin of Elizabeth I, concocted a story of kidnap and alleged rape to justify her marriage to her third husband – potentially shedding light on a 400-year-old royal murder mystery.

Far from being the saintly and wronged Roman Catholic monarch portrayed in portraits and films, Mary was actually a “moral loose cannon”, whose striking beauty and sex appeal gave Elizabeth other reasons to imprison and execute her, the researchers suggest.

The study revolves around the report by Claude Nau, Mary’s adviser and secretary, that on July 24, 1567, at Loch Levan Castle, Kinross, Mary miscarried twins. Information about the miscarriage is scant, but in May 1567, just 12 weeks after the murder of Mary’s second husband, Lord Darnley, the Scottish Queen married James Hepburn, fourth Earl of Bothwell, who had abducted and “ravished” her at Dunbar Castle, in April, some sources say.

Henry Stuart (Lord Darnley) with his wife/cousin, Mary Queen of Scots circa 1565
by unknown artist.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Mary later claimed that her pregnancy began after her marriage but experts now say this is impossible.

In a study published in the Journal of Family Planning and Reproductive Healthcare, Lesley Smith, a medical historian, claims that it would have required modern microscopes and knowledge about fetal development to identify that the miscarriage was of twins after the seven weeks of pregnancy that Mary claimed.

It would also have been an “astonishing coincidence” if conception occurred at the time of the “rape”, and even then the twins would have been just 12 weeks old and hard to identify upon miscarriage.
Instead, it is more likely that “the widowed Mary had an affair with Bothwell, became pregnant and had used the abduction story as a cover for her condition and justification for marriage,” Ms Smith says.

Along with other historians, she believes both Mary and Bothwell to have been implicated in the death of Darnley, a drunken and controversial figure who was found strangled at Kirk O’Fields, Edinburgh, after being married to Mary for just 19 months.

Bothwell was a prime suspect but was acquitted at what is now regarded as a sham trial.

James Hepburn, the 4th Earl of Boswell c. 1535-1578.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
“Mary had an undoubted passion for Bothwell, her supposed kidnapper, and did not try and escape from him despite ample opportunity. By contrast, she hated Darnley and was publicly separated from him by the time of his murder. The suspicion of an affair is not a new idea,” Ms Smith says, “but the medical evidence brings us very much closer to the likely truth.”

Tony Roberts, a consultant obstetrician at Queen’s Hospital, Burton on Trent, says that it would have required “a sensible and weathered eye” to identify a twin miscarriage at 12 weeks.

“If you want to prove pregnancy, a midwife in those days should have been able to do this, but standards were low, even for a queen,” he adds.

As such, Claude Nau’s report of the miscarriage implies that Mary became pregnant by Bothwell well before the abduction. The unlikely possibility that Darnley was the father would have left the Queen at least five months pregnant with the twins, a condition which would have been “hardly unnoticeable”, Ms Smith says.

The researcher, who is the curator of Tutbury Castle in Staffordshire, where Mary was held prisoner, says her theory further explains the animosity between Mary and Elizabeth I.

Remains of Tutbury Castle in Staffordshire, England where Mary Queen of Scots
was held prisoner.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
“Mary Stuart was a remarkable specimen of humanity,” she writes. “She was 5 ft 11 in when the average woman was around 4 ft 11 in, so she was the equivalent of 6 ft  5 in by modern standards. [She] was also beautiful and very sexually attractive. “All in all, Mary Queen of Scots was a very dangerous creature to the unmarried Protestant Elizabeth, and her physical presence made her positively intoxicating to anyone who met her.”

She said: “All the available evidence creates a damning impression. Elizabeth probably considered Mary to be a moral loose cannon and fool for men. It is also interesting that, while Mary was prisoner in England there was no Catholic nation that made a serious attempt to release her: was there a more widely held view that she was better out of the way?”

Queen of plots

December 1542 Mary born to James V of Scotland. Her father dies when she is six days old and Mary becomes Queen of Scotland

1548 Henry VIII begins his “rough wooing” — a military campaign designed to impose marriage to his son on Mary. Instead she promises to marry the French Dauphin and flees to France

1559 Marries François II

1561 She returns to Scotland following François’s death

1565 Marries Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley, her first cousin, below. Their son, James I of England, is born the following year

February 1567 Darnley found dead. James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, bottom, is prime suspect

April 24 1567 Mary visits her son for the last time at Stirling but is abducted by Bothwell and taken to Dunbar Castle, where she is allegedly raped

May 15 1567 She marries Bothwell, a Protestant, to preserve her honour, but is condemned by the Scottish nobility

July 24 1567 Imprisoned at Loch Levan Castle by her own people, she miscarries twins and is forced to abdicate the Scottish throne

May 1568 Mary escapes but is defeated at Battle of Langside and flees to England, where she is captured and spends the next 19 years as a prisoner

1578 Bothwell dies, insane and imprisoned in Denmark

1587 Mary is found guilty of treason and executed.