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3D visualization sheds light on Richard III's spinal condition

Shakespeare famously portrayed England's medieval King Richard III as a hunchback, but the discerning eye of modern technology has just cast doubt on the accuracy of this literary description.

A portrait of King Richard III
A portrait of King Richard III AP/University of Leicester

In Shakespeare's play "Richard III," the literary character of Queen Elizabeth refers to the king as "that foule hunch-backt toade." However, a new 3D visualization created by researchers and multimedia experts reveals that the monarch's scoliosis, a sideways curvature of the spine, was unlikely to have been immediately visible to others.

"We wanted to know if Shakespeare's description was accurate, or an exaggeration to help legitimize the Tudor monarchs on the throne at the time," study author Piers Mitchell, an anthropologist at the University of Cambridge, told CBS News in an email. "Based on the study of his bones, Richard III would be better described as crook-backed than hunch-backed."

The royal skeleton was discovered under a parking lot in Leicester, England, in September 2012, and DNA tests confirmed its identity five months later.

In order to figure out the extent of the king's scoliosis, the researchers created physical and computer-generated models of Richard III's spine by performing CT scans and then using 3D prints of the bones based on the CT image data.

The 3D visualization shows that Richard's spine was curved to the right and it was twisted to a degree, which gave it a "spiral" shape. The researchers also estimated that the king's Cobb angle -- a measure used to determine the extent of spinal deformities -- was between 65 and 85 degrees -- a curvature that would be considered significant these days. However, he also had a well-balanced curve, which means that his head and neck were straight and not angled to the side.

(Here is the 3D visualization of the king's spine, which you can rotate 360 degrees by clicking on it with your mouse and moving it around. Copyright: University of Leicester.)

"Richard did have a marked spinal deformity due to scoliosis," Mitchell said. "However, there was no evidence from his skeleton for his having a withered arm or a limp, as portrayed in Shakespeare's play."

Richard's scoliosis likely started to develop in the last few years of adolescent growth, after he turned 10, the researchers wrote in the study. The monarch's right shoulder was likely positioned higher than the left one, and his torso was probably relatively short compared with his arms and legs.

Previous research has already shown that the king would have been about 5 feet 8 inches tall without his scoliosis. But the new study suggests that, because of his spinal condition, he may have appeared shorter than he really was. "This may have made him appear less imposing as a ruler," Mitchell said.

The condition would probably not have impacted his breathing. "[Richard III] would most likely have had the same exercise tolerance as if he had a straight spine, and so be as effective leading an army in battle," Mitchell added.

The study detailing Richard III's spinal condition is published May 30 in the journal The Lancet.

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