Do we have the right to violate King Tut's medical privacy?

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

For the living, doctor/patient confidentiality is considered a basic right, something violated by only the most ethically bankrupt. Yet King Tutankhamen's deadly diseases, incestuous habits, and missing penis make international headlines. Should researchers reveal all this intimate, embarrassing information?

According to anatomist Frank Rühli and ethicist Ina Kaufmann, both of Switzerland's University of Zurich, the answer is a resounding no. They argue that the invasive exploration of mummy remains and the sensitive information revealed would require consent if we were doing it to modern humans. Obviously, Tutankhamen isn't around to give consent to these studies, which raises real questions about whether researchers have the right to perform them, let alone release that information to the entire world.

Rühli argues that all human remains have a "moral value", and we have a responsibility to consider the wishes of the deceased, even the ancient deceased, when studying their remains. Of course, this is where you get into something of an endless guessing game.


On the one hand, maybe King Tut wouldn't want his debilitating disease and absent genitals revealed to the world at large, because it would undermine the supposed godlike virility of a pharaoh. On the other hand, pharaohs want to be famous for all eternity, and the discovery of his tomb and extensive studies of his bodies have arguably made him the most famous pharaoh of them all. So which (entirely hypothetical) desire should be given more weight?

That's why most researchers don't bother with these questions, on the grounds that mummies come from a historical epoch so far removed from our own that modern ethical issues don't really apply. But University of Manchester bioethicist Søren Holm argues Rühli and Kaufmann raise legitimate questions, and if nothing else researchers should consider whether King Tut's inbreeding or missing penis are the stuff of legitimate scientific inquiry or simply titillating headline fodder:

"In a certain sense these people still have a life. We still talk about them. There are pieces of research that could affect their reputation. Do we really need to sort out the intricate details of Tutankhamun's family history?"


Rühli says he tries to treat mummies like living patients in his own research, and he believes that's something other researchers should consider. Even if we can't know what King Tutankhamen would have wanted, we do know how we would want our remains to be treated by far future archaeologists, and it might be a good idea to keep that in mind as we investigate the secrets of mummies.

[Journal of Medical Ethics via New Scientist]