X-ray determines cause of death for Italian saint

September 2, 2010
Rebekah Moan

Diagnostic Imaging Europe Vol 26 No 5, Volume 26, Issue 5

An x-ray taken centuries after her death proves a well-known saint died from a cardiac embolism instead of tuberculosis, as was previously thought.

An x-ray taken centuries after her death proves a well-known saint died from a cardiac embolism instead of tuberculosis, as was previously thought. The body of Santa Rosa, an 18- or 19-year old girl, was naturally mummified in the 13th century.

Santa Rosa, or Saint Rose, allegedly brought people back to life and is said to have been unscathed after standing in a funeral pyre for three hours. She is conserved in a monastery bearing her name in Viterbo, Italy.

Tuberculosis infection had been the accepted theory of the cause of her death, but a detailed sample analysis found no signs of the disease in her lifetime. However, examination confirmed her whole torso did not develop properly, indicating she may have suffered from Cantrell’s syndrome, a rare condition causing defects involving the diaphragm, abdominal wall, pericardium, heart, and lower sternum.

In 1995, the anthropology section of the State University G. d’Annunzio of Chieti was entrusted with preserving the mummified body. Santa Rosa’s heart was removed from her chest in 1921 and lacks the great arteries and systemic and pulmonary veins.

A low-intensity x-ray showed a right deviation of the ventricular septum and the presence of a mass, probably a thrombus, between the apex of the left ventricle and the entry of the diverticulum.

“Ventricular diverticulum is one of the most common heart defects described in patients with Cantrell’s syndrome and is frequently associated with development of thrombus and subsequent embolization,” according to Professor Ruggero D’Anastasio, of the human movement sciences department at the university, and colleagues.

The authors concluded cardiac embolism was the cause of her death.