Western University Anthropology professor and forensic sculptor work to reject Scottish King Robert’s leprosy label

February 16, 2017

A Western University bio-archaeologist and a Western-trained forensic sculptor have laid to rest a pernicious 700-year-old rumour: Scottish warrior-king Robert the Bruce did not have leprosy.

The suggestion their national hero may have had the disfiguring, contagious disease has long been a burr in Scotland’s thistle. Leprosy in more recent years has lost much of its stigma and is curable with medications. But it was a different story in the 1300s : “In those days, if you wanted to come up with the worst thing you could say to someone, it was, ‘you leper,’ “ Western Anthropology Professor Andrew Nelson says. “With just that word, you could besmirch a person and his legacy.”

But in the first examination authorized by the Bruce family descendants, Nelson has determined King Robert I did not show the telltale suite of signs of the disease.

Nelson examined a plaster cast of a skull the family had lent to sculptor Christian Corbet, as the Bruce family for the first time commissioned a bust of the hero king. Corbet needed to know whether previous depictions of King Robert that showed him disfigured by leprosy were based on forensic evidence or were based merely on centuries-old rivals’ rumours.

Legendary Robert the Bruce, who fought for a Scotland independent of England, died in 1329 after 23 years as king. His skeletal remains were accidentally exhumed in 1819 and, before the skeleton was re-interred forever in thick tar, officials made a plaster cast of his skull.

Nelson notes that the bone around the nose area, the anterior nasal spine, is teardrop-shaped as it would be in a healthy person. In someone with leprosy, that bone would have eroded to a more circular shape. He also examined images of a metatarsal bone, which should have been pencil-shaped at one end if Robert the Bruce suffered from leprosy. It was normal. Some analysts have speculated that four missing front teeth as shown in the cast would suggest a deformation that was common in leprosy. But contemporary reports say the exhumed skull, even 490 years after his death, was whole and as healthy-looking as anyone’s. Nelson believes the plaster-casting process broke teeth already decayed by periodontal disease.

Nelson also worked with internationally recognized paleo-pathologist and leprosy expert Dr. Olivier Dutour of France and Dr. Stan Kogon, a professor specializing in forensic dentistry at the Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, on the analysis. The report is under review by the International Journal of Paleopathology.

“That ‘leprosy’ diagnosis was made on the basis of something that wasn’t there during his life,” Nelson says.

The analysis has enabled Corbet to shape a bust that shows King Robert as a fierce and battle-scarred warrior, one without the skin lesions common in leprosy. That bust, on a plinth made of an oak believed to have been planted by Robert the Bruce himself, will be unveiled at the Sterling Smith Art Gallery and Museum in Central Scotland on March 23 -- near where the small forces of Robert the Bruce routed the larger and better-equipped English army at Bannockburn in 1314. (In historical legend, even if not in the Hollywood movie version that celebrated freedom-fighter William Wallace, the term “Braveheart” was a battle cry uttered in later years to evoke the memory of Robert the Bruce.)

Corbet says the work exemplifies the best of multi-disciplinary collaboration -- the intersection of science, history and art. “It’s a new face to a great king, a new face for a great man.”