A mummified ancestor of Boris Johnson may not have died of syphilis after all, an expert has argued after a genomic analysis of the woman’s remains. Found under the Barfüsser Church in Basel back in 1975, “Switzerland’s most famous mummy” was identified in 2018 as being one Anna Catharina Bischoff — Mr Johnson’s sixth great-grandmother. Her mummified remains were found to contain high levels of mercury, a historic treatment for syphilis — and so it was assumed that an infection of such led to her death. However, a new analysis of the microbes preserved in her remains has revealed not Treponema pallidum, the microorganism that causes the disease, but high levels of another and completely unknown bacterium.
Bischoff — who was born to a wealthy family in Strasbourg, France in 1719 — is recorded to have moved to Basel with her remaining immediate family after her father died in 1733.
Shortly before this move, she met one Lucas Gernler, a pastor, whom she went on to marry in 1738. The couple then returned to Strasbourg, where they had seven children, two of whom survived into adulthood.
After her husband’s death in 1781, she returned to Basel, dying six years later.
The mercury administered to treat her illness had the side effect of slowing her body’s rate of putrefaction, with the result that her corpse became mummified.
Microbiologist Dr Mohamed Sarhan from the Italy-based Eurac Research said: “The initial assumption [that she died of syphilis] was based on the mercury presence in her body, especially in the lungs.
“This might indicate inhalation treatment for syphilis, as this was the protocol followed back then.
“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.”
The researchers compared the DNA from the Bischoff mummy’s mysterious bacterium with those of microorganisms known from today.
They found that they contained genes similar to those in modern bacteria that cause both bone lesions and pulmonary symptoms.
Bone lesions — which can be observed in Bischoff’s remains — are also a symptom of untreated, late-stage syphilis.
This raises the possibility that the pastor’s wife was misdiagnosed with the sexually-transmitted infection, while the true cause of her sickness went unrecognised.
For Dr Sarhan, the findings are enough to rewrite the history of Bischoff’s 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 the age of 69, so not very young. 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.”
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Other experts, meanwhile, are sceptical about Dr Sarhan’s conclusions.
Dr Gerhard Hotz — a curator of anthropology at the Natural History Museum of Basel, in whose collections the mummified remains now reside — 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.
Regardless of the truth, what is certain is that Bischoff’s illness was taken to be syphilis back while she was still alive — a damning diagnosis for the wealthy widow of a priest.
Such would have seen her barred from visiting public baths, and even refused treatment in a normal hospital.
Dr Hotz explained: “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.”
According to Dr Hotz, Bischoff probably did not contract syphilis sexually. The scrutiny of the church-going community would have made it difficult for either her or her husband to conceal an affair — and letters from her husband detailing his own illnesses do not reveal symptoms consistent with a syphilis infection.
He said: “We don’t think it was an affair, either from her husband or from herself.
“There’s another explanation. Because she was the wife of a priest, she had to visit sick people, to console them.
“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.”
Additional reporting by Michael Havis.
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