18th c. Hungarian mummies help TB research

A group of 265 mummies currently in the Hungarian Natural History Museum are being studied by medical researchers looking for new ways to combat tuberculosis. Tuberculosis killed 1.5 million people in 2010, and fully a third of the world population is infected but asymptomatic. The vaccine doesn’t work in many places where TB is endemic and antibiotics are increasingly powerless to combat the disease. It takes a six month regimen of antibiotics to battle tuberculosis; many people never complete the program. That only gives the bacterium more opportunities to become resistant to even the strongest and longest antibiotics. The group of well-preserved mummies from the 1700s and early 1800s, when tuberculosis was sweeping the continent as the White Plague, can provide invaluable information about the bacterium and our natural defenses against it.

Vác mummy in the Hungarian Natural History MuseumTwo hundred and sixty-five town residents — among them merchants, nuns, 30 priests, surgeons, craftsmen, and the postmaster’s wife and child — were interred in the crypt of the Church of the Whites in the northern Hungary town of Vác between 1731 and 1838. The cool air, low moisture and the bacteria- and fungi-killing pine oil from their wood coffins combined to create ideal natural mummification conditions, but nobody noticed because the vault had been bricked up and forgotten.

Coffins stacked in Church of the Whites vaultIn 1994, a worker investigating the source of some cracks in the church wall found a spot that sounded hollow when he tapped on it with a hammer. After a few more taps, the wall began to collapse and the builder realized it was only a single brick thick. He broke through and found a stone staircase leading into the inky darkness. He and the priest went down the stairs and found an enormous crypt packed to the ceiling with elaborately painted coffins stacked from largest to smallest.

Decorated coffin of a miner, tools of the trade painted on the sideThe priest, recognizing their rarity and significance — coffins don’t often survive above ground in pristine condition for hundreds of years — called in ethnographers to examine them. They looked inside the coffins and found the mummified remains and everything they were buried with. The crypt’s microclimate had preserved the clothing they were laid to rest in, from wool socks to bonnets to military uniforms, plus rosaries, ribbons and crowns of rosemary.

Johannes Orlovits, 10 months old when he died in 1801The mummies were transferred to the Hungarian Natural History Museum in Budapest where experts took X-rays of the mummies. They found evidence of tuberculosis on the bones. Dr. Ildiko Pap, director of anthropology at the Natural History Museum, contacted Professor Mark Spigelman, a surgeon who has pioneered the study of tuberculosis in archaeological remains, and told him he had almost 300 mummies to examine. Dr. Spigelman has done wonders discovering tuberculosis DNA preserved in the ancient tissues of the handful of mummies he’s had access to; having such a large group to study is a unique opportunity.

Veronica Orlovits, Johannes' motherTissue samples found evidence of tuberculosis infection in 89% of the mummies. Studying centuries-old TB might also give us an idea of how drug-resistant strains develop and how we can combat them in the short term. Only 35% of the Vác mummies appear to have died from the disease. Since there was no vaccine and no antibiotic treatment, the 65% who were not felled by the disease could prove to have had a genetic resistance, opening the door to a potential gene therapy for tuberculosis in the long term.

9 thoughts on “18th c. Hungarian mummies help TB research

  1. I wonder if the similar aprons (pointed hem) mean the woman and child are related? Poor little dear, laid out in her Sunday best (though I wonder why her ankles are tied together?) with her small hands neatly folded, I feel like crying…If she could help babies now to live long lives, it might give her mother some peace. And the ladies dress appears to be printed with a bright pattern, for some reason I never thought of material in this time period being anything but woven patterns. Such wonderful preservation, the apron appears to be ironed nice and smooth. It makes sense that even germs would be amazingly preserved. “Memento mori” indeed.

    1. They are indeed related. The mother is Veronica Orlovits, and the baby is her son Johannes. (Young children at that time were dressed in what we now consider dresses no matter what their gender.) He died when he was just 10 months old. I don’t know why his ankles were tied together, but I suspect it was a mortuary practice to keep the body tidy when laid to rest. I found the mother and child incredibly moving as well.

      Michael Orlovits, Veronica’s husband and Johannes’ father was also found in the crypt. He was a miller by profession, but he to was buried in his Sunday best, a beautiful military uniform. I didn’t include his picture in the post, but you can see it here. Johannes died in 1801, Michael in 1806 and Veronica a year after him. They all died of tuberculosis, and sadly, she was probably the original source of infection in her family.

      Just FYI, I put picture captions in the hovertext, so if you hover your mouse over the pics you’ll see more details about them.

  2. Thank you for this fascinating story. The degree of preservation is a great gift not only for medical study, but for history as well.

    Three of my four great-grandparents on mother’s side died of tuberculosis in Texas in the early 1900’s, as well as two of her aunts ( in infancy) and her adult brother. In fact, it is not uncommon even today, and health care professionals are tested every two years to check for exposure. It continues to evade anything but containment in the ‘cure’ department, as does the closely related disease of leprosy, which was also endemic in Louisiana into the 1900’s.

  3. Yes they are. The child died one year old in 1801 (Johannes, May 20th,) and the mother (Veronica) in 1808 if I remember right. She was 38 yrs old.
    The child’s ankles are tied together because in Eastern Europe they were very afraid of ‘living deads’. The child shouldn’t be able to ‘come back’. Hard to understand for us today, this was a very magical world.

    I know from my family’s history that it wasn’t easy for parents to loose children in that time. It is said so often but NOT true. It broke the hearts as it does today.
    Your comment is very warm hearted. Best wishes to you from Berlin 🙂

  4. But let me add one point: Tuberculosis helped by the mummyfiyng. The dead ones were slim and already ‘dry’ at the moment of death. The old name for that illness was something like ‘haggerdy’ or emaciation’in german. And so it was the first step to help to become a mummy 🙁 Very very sad.

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