Oldest Case of Leprosy in Britain Hints at Scandinavian Origin

Few diseases have haunted the collective cultural imagination like leprosy. Caused by a bacterium called Mycobacterium leprae it can today be treated fairly simply with a course of antibiotics. Of course in the past this wasn’t the case. This disfiguring disease was once found across wide swathes of the globe and now research has shed a light on how it may have first arrived in Britain.

Although today we might think of leprosy as a tropical ailment once it was wide spread in northern Europe. An international team, including members from Southampton University, has re-examined a skeleton originally excavated from Great Chesterford, Essex during the 1950s. The skeleton was that of a young man, estimated to be in his twenties, and was dated to around 5-6AD. Although superficial examination of the bones suggested that the man may have suffered from leprosy such a diagnosis is impossible without DNA testing. Using modern techniques the team were able to perform those tests and not only confirmed the diagnosis of leprosy but they were even able to identify the particular strain of the disease. It matched to one previously found in far later skeletons from southern England but also to specimens recovered from bones in Medieval Scandinavia.

However, the researchers did not stop there. Instead they used isotope analysis to find out where the young man was originally from. The technique involved taking samples from the skeleton’s teeth which were then analysed to reveal a distinctive isotopic signature that could then be used to identify to where the man grew up. The results showed conclusively that he wasn’t originally from Britain but from somewhere else in northern Europe, potentially even from southern Scandinavia. This tied in very well with the results from the disease’s genetics.

Taken together this research strongly suggests that leprosy entered Britain from Scandinavia. Although it is highly unlikely that this particular individual was the first person to carry leprosy into Britain it nevertheless reveals the most likely course of this disease and also shows that such transmission may have happened far earlier then anyone previously suspected.


Reference: Sarah A. Inskip, et al. 2015. Osteological, Biomolecular and Geochemical Examination of an Early Anglo-Saxon Case of Lepromatous Leprosy. PLOS ONE; 10 (5): e0124282 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0124282

Featured Image: Photo of the bones of the feet of a female skeleton showing the effects of leprosy. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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Emma Gregg

I have an MSci in Palaeontology and Evolution and a passion for all things extinct! I've always loved writing about the science that interests me and I have a particular fascination for palaeopathology. www.palaeoearth.com

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