How Twisted Was Richard III's Spine? New Models Reveal

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A 3D model of the spine of King Richard III of England.
University of Leicester

Shakespeare called him a hunchback, but a new three-dimensional model of King Richard III's spiraling spine shows his true disability: adolescent idiopathic scoliosis.

Richard III, who ruled England from 1483 to 1485, died in the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. His body was buried in a hastily dug grave in Leicester, where it was then lost to time. In 2012, archaeologists rediscovered the bones under a city council parking lot, and exhumed them for study.

The curve in Richard's spine was immediately obvious, confirming an anatomical anomaly that had long been controversial. No paintings made during the king's lifetime survive, according to the Richard III Society (though some exist from soon after his death that were likely copied from originals, and modern researchers have reconstructed the king's face).

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The popular image of Richard III came from Shakespeare, who describe the king as a "poisonous bunch-backed toad" in his 1593 play. Shakespeare's Richard III had a hunchback and a withered arm, and modern historians were uncertain whether the depiction held any truth or was simply designed to please the political enemies of the king's Plantagenet family line. [Gallery: The Spine of Richard III]

Medical history

In 1490, just five years after Richard's death in battle, however, medieval historian John Rous described the king as a small man with "unequal shoulders, the right higher and the left lower." This description is consistent with scoliosis, a condition in which the spine curves sideways.

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Richard III's rediscovered skeleton revealed that the king did, in fact, have scoliosis. Now, researchers led by University of Leicester bioarchaeologist Jo Appleby reveals the details of his condition.

Appleby and her colleagues conducted computed tomography scans of the king's individual vertebrae. These CT scans use X-rays to image the inside of the bone, creating virtual slices that can be explored digitally. Using the scans, the researchers then created polymer copies of each vertebra, piecing them together into a 3D model of Richard III's spine.