A mummified ancestor of Boris Johnson didn’t die of syphilis, shocked scientists have revealed – and the true culprit is something we’ve never seen before.
Branded ‘Switzerland’s most famous mummy’, the corpse made headlines in 2018 when it was identified as Anna Catharina Bischoff, Johnson’s sixth great-grandmother.
Her remains, which were found in 1975, contained high levels of mercury – historically, a treatment for syphilis – so it was assumed that the disease had killed her.
But now an analysis of the microbes in her mummified organs has revealed not syphilis, but high levels of a bacterium previously unknown to science.
Microbiologist Mohamed Sarhan from Eurac Research said: ‘The initial assumption was based on the mercury presence in her body, especially in the lungs.
A mummified ancestor of Boris Johnson didn’t die of syphilis, shocked scientists have revealed – and the true culprit is something we’ve never seen before
‘This might indicate inhalation treatment for syphilis, as this was the followed protocol back then.
What is syphilis and how is it spread?
Syphilis is a bacterial infection that’s usually caught by having sex with someone who’s infected.
But it can be spread to anyone who comes into close contact with an infected sore.
This usually happens during sex, but could occur if treating a patient unprotected.
Pregnant women with syphilis can also pass the infection to their unborn baby.
It may be possible to catch syphilis if you’re an injecting drug user and you share needles with somebody who’s infected, or through blood transfusions.
The first symptom is a painless, round red sore around the affected area.
It is easily treated but if left, can spread to the brain and cause serious long-term problems.
Source: NHS Choices
‘We therefore analysed many samples from every organ in her body to see whether we can find any DNA traces of the syphilis-causing pathogen, but we couldn’t.
‘Instead we found this new bacterium that was highly abundant in the brain tissues and correlated with the highest mercury concentration in the brain.’
Comparing the mysterious old bacteria with bacteria from today revealed something intriguing.
It contained similar sets of genes to those found in modern bacteria that cause bone lesions and pulmonary symptoms.
Bone lesions, which are visible in Bischoff’s remains, are a known symptom of untreated late-stage syphilis.
So she may have been misdiagnosed with the sexually-transmitted infection, when the true cause of her sickness was something unknown.
For Dr Sarhan, it’s enough to rule out syphilis as a cause of death.
He said: ‘The assumption that she might have died of syphilis can be excluded even if she had it.
‘Syphilis at an advanced stage has very clear signs that she did not have.
‘Additionally, she died at age of 69, so not very young.
‘Also, she had other health issues – for example: she was overweight and had gallstones, and had other issues that are currently under research.
‘The mercury treatment might have weakened her body and immune system over time, but was not really the main cause of her death.’
Dr Sarhan’s conclusions aren’t without controversy, however.
Her remains, which were found in 1975, contained high levels of mercury – historically, a treatment for syphilis – so it was assumed that the disease had killed her
An analysis of the microbes in her mummified organs has revealed not syphilis, but high levels of a bacterium previously unknown to science
Gerhard Hotz of the Natural History Museum of Basel, where the mummy is now kept, said: ‘This is the point where we have different opinions.
‘In the late stages of syphilis you don’t find a lot of bacteria in the body anymore. So it was very difficult to find the old genome of the bacteria.
‘So it’s not proof that she didn’t have it – for me personally, I still think she had it. Her skull clearly shows signs of syphilis. But we can’t prove it by genomes.’
Whatever the case, Bischoff’s illness was certainly assumed to be syphilis in her time.
And for the wealthy widow of a priest, that was a damning diagnosis.
Dr Hotz said: ‘Nobody wanted to talk about it. Normally when people died of her social class from Basel, there was a written obituary about the person, who she was and so on.
‘We found it about everybody, but not about her. So we think she died, and she was very quickly and privately buried in the church.’
He said her diagnosis would have barred her from using public baths and even being treated in a normal hospital.
But it didn’t necessarily indicate any illicit sexual activity.
Dr Hotz said the scrutiny of the churchgoing community would have made an affair difficult to conceal, and letters from her husband detailing his own illnesses give no symptoms of syphilis.
Comparing the mysterious old bacteria with bacteria from today revealed something intriguing. It contained similar sets of genes to those found in modern bacteria that cause bone lesions and pulmonary symptoms
She may have been misdiagnosed with the sexually transmitted infection, when the true cause of her sickness was something unknown
Bischoff was born to a wealthy family in Strasbourg, France, in 1719. Her father, himself a priest, ministered to the Swiss families of the city, but when he died aged 40 the rest of the family rejoined their relations in Basel
He continued: ‘We don’t think it was an affair, either from her husband or from herself.
‘But there’s another explanation – because she was the wife of a priest, she had to visit sick people, to console them.
‘And in Strasbourg, near where she lived, there was a hospital for syphilis, so we think she was going there to visit sick people.
‘And if somebody was newly infected, you can easily be infected.’
Bischoff was born to a wealthy family in Strasbourg, France, in 1719.
Her father, himself a priest, ministered to the Swiss families of the city, but when he died aged 40 the rest of the family rejoined their relations in Basel.
Bischoff’s husband would ultimately take her father’s old job in Strasbourg, and she lived there for more than 40 years, having seven children – four of whom survived to adulthood.
Her oldest daughter, also called Anna Katharina, is Boris Johnson’s fifth great-grandmother.
After her husband’s death, Bischoff returned once more to Basel, where she died in 1787.
And when she was buried in Barfüsser Church, the mercury that had been used to treat her slowed her putrefaction and turned her into a mummy.
HOW DO BODIES BECOME NATURALLY MUMMIFIED?
Tollund Man (pictured), who lived in the fourth century BCE, is one of the best studied examples of a ‘bog body’
Natural mummification is defined as the process by which the skin and organs of a deceased person or animal are preserved, without the introduction of chemicals by humans.
It is rare, and only happens in specific situations.
These include: extreme cold, arid conditions, or a lack of oxygen.
Naturally preserved mummies have been found deposited in deserts, buried in oxygen-poor peat bogs, and frozen in glaciers.
Some ancient societies accidentally encouraged this process, as they would paint the bodies and cover the deceased person’s face in a mask.
This provided an impervious layer which allowed the process to take place.
Throughout the UK, bogs provide the perfect environment for this to happen.
Tollund Man, discovered in Denmark in 1950, is one of the best studied examples of a ‘bog body’.
The man, who lived in the fourth century BC, was so well-preserved that he was initially mistaken for a recent murder victim.
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