When Lord Carnarvon died shortly after the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb, the media was ablaze with rumors of a “mummy’s curse”. A 2002 study shut down the idea by demonstrating how exposure to the curse wasn’t associated with a significant increase in risk of death, but could such an ancient tomb be harboring dangerous pathogens? Is there a more Earthly explanation for Carnarvon's demise that links it to the Boy King? We’d like to talk about Aspergillus.
How did Lord Carnarvon die?
George Herbert (better known as Lord Carnarvon, the wealthy benefactor of the dig) died in April 1923, around five months after the discovery of Tutankhamun’s tomb. The exact details of his death at 56 are hazy, but mostly center around blood poisoning or pneumonia. Dying at 56 might sound young by modern standards, but it was about average for male life expectancy back in 1923.
The leading theory is that he succumbed to an infection caused by cutting a mosquito bite, but some have suggested that it could be connected to fungi that's known to linger in tombs. Could it be that Tutankhamun’s cool and dark tomb was home to spores of Aspergillus?
What is Aspergillus?
Aspergillus is a fungal pathogen that causes aspergillosis, a condition in which tissues – most commonly the lungs – are infected by fungi. Most people breathe Aspergillus spores every day without ever getting sick, writes the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but if your immune system is compromised it can lead to the development of sinusitis, a “fungus ball” in your lungs (which is exactly what it sounds like), coughing up blood, and pneumonia.
In The Lancet, Sherif and Tariq El-Tawil debate the theory that Carnarvon may have been infected with tomb-dwelling Aspergillus when he died, something others had denied owing to the fact that he fell ill months after the tomb was opened. Not so, say the El-Tawils, because spores of Aspergillus can remain dormant in the lungs of infected individuals for extended periods of time before being activated.
“It is conceivable that Lord Carnarvon was indeed symptom-free for the five months after his first ingress into the tomb in November, 1922,” they wrote. “On March 17, 1923, The Times of London reported that Lord Carnarvon suffered from ‘pain as the inflammation affected the nasal passages and eyes’.”
“This description is consistent with invasive Aspergillus sinusitis with local extension to the orbit. Such sino-orbital infection is unlikely to complicate lobar pneumonia, which was the stated cause of death.”
King Casimir's super-spore-spreader event
The fungal pathogen isn’t without previous, as studies have shown that Aspergillus has been found in ancient tombs. It's even been touted as an explanation for the curious case of King Casimir’s tomb that's thought to be connected to the deaths of 10 of the scientists who opened it, possibly detonating a biological bomb.
So what about the other deaths that followed the opening of Tutankhamun’s tomb? Well, American financier George Jay Gould also died of pneumonia in 1923 after visiting the tomb, and Sir Archibald Douglas-Reid, a radiologist that x-rayed the Boy King before dying in 1924 of an unknown illness. It's possible that these deaths could've been linked to a pathogen lingering in Tut's tomb, but there's also no hard evidence to prove it.
Who else died after Tutankhamun's tomb excavation?
Other expedition members that the 1920s press ambitiously tried to tie to the mummy’s curse included Sir Bruce Ingham whose house burned down after he accepted the gift of a paperweight made from a mummified hand. Then there was Prince Ali Kamel Fahmy Bey of Egypt who also died in 1923, but it would seem a stretch (though an original legal defense) to claim that being shot dead by his wife was Tutankhamun’s doing.
The “evidence” grows increasingly more tenuous, and then you have Howard Carter himself, the archaeologist who was right in the thick of it and yet lived on into his 60s. So, a fungus, a curse, or just the rich tapestry of life? As is often the case in science, it seems the least Hollywood of outcomes is probably the most likely.
All “explainer” articles are confirmed by fact checkers to be correct at time of publishing. Text, images, and links may be edited, removed, or added to at a later date to keep information current.