Over the course of time, scientists have found that mold may have been the driving force behind a number of interesting phenomena including stories of leprosy in the Bible, the Salem Witch Trials, the Irish Potato Famine and the curse of the mummy’s tombs.
The written history of contaminated housing and its health effects can be traced back thousands of years. Leviticus Chapter 13:1-47 and 14:33-47 is one of the oldest known references to ill health effects and contaminated housing. Some archaeologists believe that individuals referred to as “Lepers” were actually people with fungal infections. The bible speaks of isolation and purification of people with skin diseases, and mold clean up. In biblical times, the priest acted in a similar fashion to today’s home inspector. If mildew was found in the homes, the priest would order the contaminated stones to be torn out, the inside walls to be scraped clean, old stones to be replaced with new ones, and the walls to be replastered. The home was then to be monitored for re-growth. Mold remediation back then was not much different from what is done today.
Mold-induced food poisoning called ergotism may have been responsible for the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. Ergot, a chemical with effects similar to LSD, is produced by the fungus Claviceps purpurea, which was believed to have infected the rye crops of Salem, Massachusetts. It may also have been responsible for the development of hallucinations, seizures, mental disturbances, miscarriages, and even death in small children all of which could have been mistaken for witchcraft or satanic influences. Mold infected crops causing epidemics and mass hysteria can be dated as far back as the 14th century.
In 1845, Ireland’s population totaled 8 million people, 4 million of which were enormously dependent on potatoes as a food source for humans and animals alike. A period of rain, which lasted from May 1845 until March 1846 provided textbook conditions for the reproduction of the fungus Phyophthora infestans. This fungus grew on the leaves of potato plants causing entire fields to rot within weeks. Farmers were forced to use their uninfected seed potatoes for food and were therefore unable to plant a new crop the next year. Starvation quickly spread throughout Ireland; three and a half million people died from starvation and disease or were forced to leave the country.
The tombs of ancient Egypt are famous for their “curses” that call for death and destruction to those who enter. Many of the explorers who suffered from the supposed “curse” experienced symptoms similar to those caused by exposure to Aspergillus, a mold that has been found throughout the Egyptian tombs. Egyptians often buried food, jewels, and other treasures along with their loved ones for use in the afterlife. This food may have provided the perfect nutrient source for Aspergillus and other molds.
The most notorious case of the mummy’s curse occurred with the opening of King Casimir’s tomb in Poland on April 13, 1973. Within a few days after opening the tomb, 4 of the 12 researchers present had died. Shortly after, 6 more died. One of the two remaining survivors was a microbiologist; he suffered equilibrium problems for 5 years and performed microbiological examinations of the tomb to determine any correlation between his illness and anything found in the tomb. He found traces of 3 different species of fungi on artifacts that had been removed from the tomb: Aspergillus flavus, Penicillium rubrum, and Penicillium rugulosum. These fungi produce aflatoxins B1 and B2 and are speculated to have caused the deaths of the 10 researchers.
It has also been speculated that these fungi may have been responsible for the death of Lord Carnarvon, who died a few months after exploring King Tut’s tomb in 1922. When the mummy of King Tut was examined in 1976, over 370 separate fungal colonies containing 89 different fungal species (including Aspergillus) were discovered growing on the mummy. During an analysis of 40 mummies in 1999, a German microbiologist discovered that each of the mummies contained several potentially dangerous fungal spores. Due to this evidence, scientists now take extra precautions such as wearing personal protective equipment when handling mummies and exploring new tombs.
Recent media coverage leads us to believe that molds are a new problem, but these examples show that molds have played an important part in the course of human history.