Most of the time, doctors know what’s best for you. But nearly 400 years ago, this may not have been quite so clear cut. An autopsy of a 17th-century mummy discovered in a tomb in South Korea has revealed the earliest known case of liver parasites in a human, and he may well have been infected while trying to cure another disease.

The body belongs to a man named Jing Lee, who died in 1642 at the age of 63. Lee lived during the Joseon Dynasty, during which the dead were mummified in a way that managed to preserve the bodies in exquisite detail. How exactly this was achieved is still not fully understood.

After gaining permission from the decedents of Lee, researchers from the Dankook University College of Medicine put his 375-year-old body through a CT scanner to peek inside at his internal organs. In addition to finding that they were squished to one side, most likely as a result of gravity, they also spotted a large mass within the liver just below the diaphragm.

The remains of Jing Lee (1580-1642) are remarkably well preserved. Shin etal. 2017

The team then removed the unusual lump to get a better look at it, and found that it contained quite a large number of parasitic fluke eggs. Writing in the Journal of Parasitology, they were able to identify them as belong to the parasite known as Paragonimus westermani. The fluke is usually carried by freshwater crustaceans, and when consumed penetrate through the intestinal wall and into the peritoneal cavity. From here, the fluke then either goes through the diaphragm and into the lungs, or heads for the liver as they did in Lee.

It means that Lee was most probably suffering from hepatic paragonimiasis when he finally kicked the bucket, making him the oldest known case of the disease. Symptoms of this include a fever, abdominal pain, and diarrhea.

The flukes found in Lee’s liver likely belonged to Paragonimus westermani. Shin et al. 2017

The irony here is that he may have contracted the disease after eating raw shellfish on the recommendation of a doctor. At the time of Lee’s death, eating raw crayfish and crabs was common within the Joseon culture, with doctors during this period believing that drinking raw crayfish juice was an effective way to treat measles.

While there is no hard evidence to show that Lee had been suffering from measles, the researchers speculate that it could well have been a mechanism by which he acquired the parasitic infection in the first place.

Four centuries later and people are still being infected by P. westermani after eating inadequately cooked crab or shellfish. It is thought that 22 million people are infected every year worldwide, with most of these cases being in Southeast Asia.

[H/T: New Scientist]

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