History Files


The Middle East

Herod's Grisly Death is Examined

BBC News, 26 January 2002



Scholars believe they have solved a 2,000-year-old mystery of how King Herod died, suggesting he was probably a victim of kidney disease.

The king, who reputedly ordered the executions of one wife, three sons and the slaughter of thousands of baby boys in an attempt to destroy the baby Jesus, died aged 69 in 4 BC.

Experts in the US looked at texts giving a description of Herod's symptoms during his final days to make their analysis.

Research co-ordinator Dr Jan Hirschmann said: "Herod the Great expired from chronic kidney disease probably complicated by Fournier's gangrene.

"The texts we depend on for a close description of Herod's last days list several major features of the disease that caused his death - among them, intense itching, painful intestinal problems, breathlessness, convulsions in every limb and gangrene of the genitalia."

The research presented their conclusions at this year's historical Clinical Pathologic Conference (CPC) in the US on 25 January 2002 in Baltimore.

Dr Hirschmann said: "When I first looked at the general diseases that cause itching, it became clear that most of them couldn't explain a majority of the features of Herod's illness."

He first considered Hodgkin's disease and some diseases of the liver, but concluded the disorder that accounted for nearly all the features of Herod's illness was chronic kidney disease.


However, one feature of Herod's illness - gangrene of the genitalia - was not explained by this diagnosis.

Dr Hirschmann said: "I finally concluded that the most likely explanation was that his chronic kidney disease was complicated by an unusual infection of the male genitalia called Fournier's gangrene."

However, the National Kidney Research Fund is sceptical of the scientists' conclusions.

A spokesman said: "The National Kidney Research Fund is unable to conclusively confirm that King Herod died from chronic kidney disease, although many of the symptoms the ruler displayed are common among kidney patients.

"Fortunately, recent medical and scientific advances have meant that treatments such as kidney transplantation and dialysis can now be used to relieve patient suffering.

"However, there remains no cure for many forms of kidney disease."

  Herod the Great expired from chronic kidney disease probably complicated by Fournier's gangrene

Dr Jan Hirschmann
research co-ordinator


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