Shaking Shakespeare: Richard III was no hunchback after all

Thu May 29, 2014 8:50pm EDT
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By Will Dunham

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - William Shakespeare excoriated Richard III, the last king of England to die in battle more than 500 years ago, with vibrant verbiage: a "foul bunch-back'd toad," "deformed, unfinish'd" and a hunchback so ugly that dogs barked as he passed by.

But the bard seems to have missed the mark, scientists said on Thursday. Their comprehensive analysis of the king's remains, including a 3-D reconstruction of his spine, confirmed that Richard was not really a hunchback but instead suffered from scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine.

Scientists spotted the spinal abnormality that looked like scoliosis when Richard's skeleton - replete with a cleaved skull - was dug up in the English city of Leicester in 2012 in one of the most important archaeological finds in recent English history.

Researchers who created a plastic 3-D model of the slain king's spine based on scans of the bones provided the first complete account of Richard's condition in a study published in the Lancet medical journal.

"It's pretty typical idiopathic adolescent-onset scoliosis," University of Leicester forensic radiologist Bruno Morgan said.

Richard's spine had a pronounced rightward curve of between 65 and 85 degrees and some twisting that yielded a spiral shape. Such a person today probably would be offered surgery to address it, the researchers said.

His right shoulder was higher than his left, and his torso relatively short compared to his limbs, they added.

"Shakespeare was right that he did have a spinal deformity. He was wrong with the kind of deformity that he had. He wasn't a hunchback," University of Cambridge biological anthropologist Piers Mitchell said.   Continued...

Donation cards are seen displayed after a decision of the Judicial Review permitting King Richard lll to be buried at Leicester Cathedral in central England May 23, 2014.  REUTERS/Darren Staples