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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, January 26, 2002

Doctors analyze King Herod's death

By Ben Nuckols
Associated Press

BALTIMORE — King Herod, the bloodthirsty Judean ruler who supposedly tried to kill the infant Jesus, died an excruciating death brought on by kidney disease and finished off by gangrene, a medical sleuth said yesterday.

Peter Richardson, portraying King Herod, answered questions from Ross Kraemer during the Historical Clinicopathological Conference yesterday in Baltimore.

Associated Press

"It's a very unpleasant way to die," said Dr. Philip Mackowiak, director of the Historical Clinicopathological Conference at the University of Maryland medical school.

At the annual conference, doctors apply their diagnostic skills to historical figures whose deaths have not been satisfactorily explained. Previous conferences concluded that rabies killed Edgar Allan Poe and that the Roman emperor Claudius died from eating poisonous mushrooms.

Before his death, Herod suffered an array of symptoms including intense itching, painful intestinal problems, breathlessness, fever, swelling in the feet, convulsions, and finally gangrene of the genitalia.

Peter Richardson, a religion professor at the University of Toronto, found the description of Herod's ailments in the writings of the first-century historian Flavius Josephus.

Fournier's gangrene, rare today, probably killed Herod, said Dr. Jan Hirschmann of the University of Washington medical school, who examined Herod's case history. The disease would have killed the king in a week or less.

The itching led Hirsch-mann to conclude Herod suffered from kidney disease. Itching might have led to the gangrene as well, causing Herod to scratch his skin and open it to infectious bacteria.

Many have speculated that Herod had gonorrhea, but Hirschmann said there's no evidence to support that.

Debunking such popular theories is the point of an intensive, clinical approach, Mackowiak said.

Kidney disease may also explain some of Herod's brutal acts — including the executions of several family members. The untreated accumulation of bodily wastes can cause mental illness.

"He had some mental changes — depression and a suicide attempt, as well as paranoia," Hirschmann said. "These may be part of the disease, or they may be extensions of what he was like before."

According to religious tradition, Herod, fearing the coming of a Messiah after Jesus' birth, ordered the execution of infant boys in Bethlehem, forcing Mary, Joseph and the child to flee to Egypt.