Speakeasy Science

Once upon a time – by which I mean the 19th century – people spilled the poison arsenic into their lives with free and merry hands.

Arsenic was mixed into medicines, into cosmetics, into weed killers, insecticies, rat poisons, fly papers. It was the primary ingredient in a number of well-known dyes used to color fabric, wallpaper, the artificial leaves used to decorate hats and wreaths, cardboard boxes, greeting cards, labels, candles, India rubber balls, oil paint, tin plants, Venetian blinds, carpets, soap, and even green stones set into costume jewelry.

Naturally, poisoners took advantage of this abundance. Arsenic, is after all, a rather murderous metallic element, capable of spreading throughout the body and efficiently disrupting cellular metabolism. In the early 19th century, it was the poisoner’s favorite weapon – its symptoms were similar to those of natural infections, from respiratory distress, to nausea and severe cramping. Perhaps the most obvious warning of arsenic poisoning was a yellowing or darkening of skin, if the poison was taken in low doses over some period of time, with sensitivity to touch and even formation of sores on hands and feet.

Still until the mid-19th century, no reliable scientific tests existed to detect arsenic in a dead body. Today arsenic is rarely used, after all, with its stubborn metallic residues, it’s known as one of the easiest poisons to discover in a corpse, even decades after death. But two hundred years ago, the poison was so feared as a homicidal weapon that it earned a dark nickname – “the inheritance powder” – for a very good reason.

Which brings us – although you might not see it coming – to the Latin American general Simón Bolívar, famed for helping to liberate much of continent from Spanish domination, in the early 19th century. Bolívar died in 1830 but even 180 years later he remains one of South America’s most revered heroes. The country of Bolivia is named after him, statues abound across the continent, his bones are enshrined in Caracas, Venezuela, the country of his birth. But Bolívar did not die a glorious death. He was in the process of leaving for Europe, following several attempts on his life by political enemies, when he died at the age of 47, reportedly from tuberculosis.

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Which brings us – although again you might not see this coming – to this year’s Historical Clinicopathological Conference, an annual event which re-examines the deaths of famous figures in history. In previous years, the conference has its medical attention on leaders ranging Abraham Lincoln to the United States to Akhenaten of ancient Egypt. This year’s meeting, in early May, was on Simón Bolívar and the keynote speaker was an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University announced that Bolivar’s symptoms didn’t fit that diagnosis. Rather, Dr. Paul Auwaerter, said they were a better match with chronic arsenic poisoning, right down to the darkening of the dying leader’s skin.

Auwaerter suggested that although Bolivar might have indeed had tuberculosis, the poison might have sped up his death. And he proposed two possible sources for the poison – contaminated drinking water (Bolivar had spent time in Peru, where the natural element is known to taint water) and the medicines used to treat his illness, which quite probably contained arsenic.

Which brings us – at last – to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. The leader of Venezuela has long venerated his famous countryman, often comparing his fight against “Yankee Imperialism” to the heroic deeds of El Liberator. He sent two members of the Venezuelan Embassy to hear Auwaerter speak and promptly announced that the doctors’ report confirmed what he, Chávez, had long suspected – that his hero had been murdered by his enemies from Columbia.

“And now a scientist from the United States comes out saying he has proof … that Bolivar died by murder,” Chávez said in a press statement, apparently horrifying Auwaerter who promptly replied he didn’t support the assassination theory. And didn’t appreciate his work being used for political reasons. In fact, the scientist sounded down right cranky about getting caught up in the politics of murder, even a long ago one.

Which brings me to a possible solution. Oh, it might be a little politically tricky, bu. If the Venezuelans were willing to exhume Bolívar his remains could be tested for arsenic levels. It wouldn’t tell us necessarily if he was murdered, but it could tell us if he wasn’t, depending on whether the body contained lethal levels of the poison. That’s not even particularly hard to do. If we’ve learned anything from our years of living with arsenic, it’s that this is not a poison that keeps secrets well.

Comments

  1. #1 Abel Pharmboy
    May 16, 2010

    I must tell you this story although it might be somewhat off-topic: our 7-year-old daughter has become a fan of crime shows, especially NCIS. So, when she asked about your book on my beside, my reading to her that night was the preface.

    A few nights later, she asked if I could read her more from “that poison book.” She is very proud that she knows arsenic is called poudre de succession and why it has this name.

    Thank you for helping my daughter appreciate my original field of toxicology in a way that I don’t think I ever could have done myself.

  2. #2 Russell
    May 16, 2010

    We were taught the Marsh test in inorganic chemistry. Pretty damn sensitive, since I doubt the mysterious unknowns they gave us ever had that much arsenic in them. I had known arsenic was used against syphilis. I didn’t realize it was used against TB, in the days before isoniazid.

  3. #3 Deborah Blum
    May 18, 2010

    Well, my first response is that you have a wonderful and smart daughter. I love this story of the two of you talking over the history of arsenic. But I’m so glad she found it so interesting – chemistry is such a beautiful and fundamental (as well as sometimes sinister) science, and I like trying to find ways to make people appreciate that. But a seven-year-old makes my greatest success story along that line – thanks so much for sharing.

  4. #4 Isis the Scientist
    May 21, 2010

    What a brilliant idea, Deborah! I say we start a letter writing campaign to to exhume Bolívar!

    Better yet, you and I with a shovel after a couple of pink drinks could totally take care of it.

  5. #5 Deborah Blum
    May 21, 2010

    Yes, to all. First a letter. Then you, me, a shovel, and the pink drinks. I’ll polish up my passport. Or will we need assumed names?

  6. #6 anonimous
    June 6, 2010

    The circumstances of bolivar’s death have always been a bit shady. Bolivar was quite unpopular by the time of his death and all sorts of rumors have surrounded the circumstances under which it occurred. My understanding is that the figure of bolivar was resurrected as hero around the time the dictator Gomez was in power and that many of the historic document were cleansed during this time to make the human bolivar seem to be more of a divine figure. In records found in Europe about Bolivar, there seems to be reasonable suspicion that bolivar actually contracted syphilis and that it was a mayor contribution to his death. Other accounts of homosexuality are also prevalent, but these two last are statements that could get you in trouble in venezuela again, much is written out there and we really don’t know how much is true. One thing is certain, Chavez is not exactly a reliable source!

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