Earliest Known Case of Leprosy in Britain Hints at Scandinavian Origin

New research released this month (May 2015) has discovered the oldest evidence of leprosy in Britain, and suggests that it may have been introduced to the country originally from Scandinavia.

Modern microscope image of the bacterium responsible for leprosy. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Today leprosy is an eminently treatable disease. Despite it historic reputation it isn’t highly contagious and it only transmitted via droplets exhaled by the infected person. It is caused by a slow-growing bacteria called Mycobacterium leprae which affects the skin, peripheral nervous system, joints and eyes and which can therefore be cured by a short course of antibiotics. Untreated however, the disease often leaves victims deformed and this combined with a lack of medical knowledge led to suffers being isolated and vilified throughout much of recorded history. The disease seems universal, and there is written evidence of it from myriad different cultures across the world dating back to the Ancient Egyptians. Although today it is mainly associated with poverty-stricken tropical regions once leprosy, sometimes also known as Hanson’s disease, was wide spread across Northern Europe.

This new research hinges on the skeleton of a young man discovered back in the 1950s in Great Chesterford, Essex. The skeleton itself dates back around 1500 years, placing it at around 5-6AD. When first discovered the damage to the joints and a characteristic narrowing of the toe bones suggested the 20-year old man may have suffered from leprosy but it is notoriously difficult to diagnose this condition in skeletons without a DNA test. Such a test has now been performed using modern techniques which help ensure a clear reading. Extracting DNA from very old bones can be difficult and is prone to error but this international team of researchers, including members from the University of Southampton, managed to not only positively identify the presence of leprosy but even the particular strain. This evidence linked the Essex skeleton to several body from Medieval Scandinavia which had already been shown to have been infected with the same strain of leprosy. This is telling because although this strain is also known from later cases in Southern England this was by far the oldest.

Even more tellingly the scientists then performed a test on the skeleton’s teeth. By examining the proportions of certain isotopes in the teeth it is possible to tell where their owner grew up and the results were extremely interesting. This particular individual who ended up being buried in Essex had in fact not come from Britain originally. Instead the isotope results suggested he had grown up somewhere else in northern Europe, perhaps even southern Scandinavia. This would certainly tally with the other known cases of leprosy and could mean that this man might even have brought the disease to Britain originally. Of course the chances of this particular individual being patient zero for leprosy in Britain are vanishingly slight but it does at the very least suggest that leprosy did come to Britain from Scandinavia at some point. It also shows that this infection happened far earlier then anyone previously realised.

Reference: Inskip, S. A, et al. 2015. Osteological, Biomolecular, and Geochemical Examination of an Early Anglo-Saxon Case of Lepromatous Leprosy. PLOS ONE. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0124282

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