There may finally be an answer to the cause of King Tutankhamun's premature death at the age of 18. Since the discovery of his tomb in 1922 by Englishman Howard Carter, various possibilities have been batted around - murder, sickle cell anemia, a fall from his chariot. Now, a surgeon with a strong interest in medical history thinks that he may have found the answer due to some strong deductive reasoning.

Hutan Ashrafian, a surgeon at the Imperial College London, thinks it was epilepsy that killed the king. He thinks that all of the other theories are ignoring a vital point: that King Tut, and all of his immediate predecessors, had a feminized physique.

Paintings and sculptures produced during the time period all depict Smenkhare, a pharaoh who is believed to be either Tutankhamun's older brother or uncle, and Akhenaten, believed to be Tutankhamun's father, with large breasts and hips. Two pharaohs that preceded the boy-king, Amenhotep III and Tuthmosis IV, all appear to have similar physiques. All of these kings died young and under mysterious circumstances. And, because each died at slightly younger conditions than the last, the evidence suggests that there was an inherited condition. "There are so many theories," Ashrafin says, "but they've focused on each pharaoh individually."

Historical accounts suggest what the inherited condition may have been. Two of the five related pharaohs were said to have religious visions. In fact, seizures that originate in the temporal lobe are commonly known to cause hallucinations and religious visions in people, especially after they are exposed to sunlight. Ashrafian believes that the royal family was affected by a hereditary version of epilepsy that causes temporal lobe hallucinations.

The diagnosis would also explain the king's feminine features. The temporal lobe releases sex hormones, and seizures have been known to disrupt that process. A seizure may also be the culprit for the king's fractured leg.

The condition that cut short the life of the young ruler may also be responsible for the world's first monotheistic religion. Both Tuthmosis and Akhenaten had religious visions. Akhenaten had visions that told him to elevate Aten, a minor deity called a "sun disc", to the status of supreme God. That experience caused Egypt to abandon polytheism and embrace the first monotheistic religion. And Ashrafin believes that King Tutankhamun's death and Akhenaten's religious epiphany alike were caused by a medical condition.

But while the theory is alluring, doctors and historians alike remain unconvinced. After all, the theory would be nearly impossible to prove because there is no definitive test for epilepsy.