Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Can Medical Forensics Determine If Chile's Pablo Neruda, 40 Years After His Death, Was Poisoned?

Medical Forensics

Pablo Neruda [1904–1973]: Pablo Neruda during a U.S. Library of Congress recording session,
June 20, 1966. Neruda, who was born 
Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto and later legally adopted this name as his own (after Czech poet Jan Neruda), was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1971.  He remained a firm communist until his death.
Image Credit: U.S. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Div., 1966
Source: Wikipedia

An article, by Michele Catanzaro, in Nature News looks at whether medical forensics can determine if Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was indeed poisoned, differing from the official account that he died from prostrate cancer, aged 69; this is a cold case dating to 1973, his death occurring shortly after Salvador Allende was deposed as leader in a military coup d'état on September 11, 1973. For almost 40 years,  between 1973 and 1990, Chile was ruled by a military junta, led by General Augusto Pinochet:

Catanzaro writes:
The body of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was unearthed from his tomb in Isla Negra, Chile, this week. The exhumation marks the beginning of a forensic analysis aimed at clarifying whether the Nobel prize winner’s death in 1973 was from prostate cancer — as has been believed — or from poisoning, as a key witness has claimed.
Why has Neruda’s body been exhumed now, 40 years after his death?
Chilean judge Mario Carroza ordered the exhumation in February as part of an investigation that was opened in 2011 after Neruda’s former driver Manuel Araya said that the real cause of the poet’s death was an unscheduled injection that he received a few hours before dying on 23 September 1973. Neruda's death occurred just 12 days after the coup d’état that brought Augusto Pinochet to power to establish a right-wing dictatorship in the country. Neruda had served as ambassador to France under the deposed socialist president, Salvador Allende, and, like other Allende supporters, would have been persecuted by the new regime. On the basis of Araya’s testimony, the Communist Party of Chile, to which Neruda belonged, filed a criminal lawsuit in 2011. 
Is it possible to trace the cause of the death after so many years?
“Beyond the time elapsed, the main problem is that we don’t have medical records on the poet’s illness,” says Patricio Bustos Streeter, director of Chile’s Legal Medical Service (SML) and coordinator of the forensic team. Records would provide details on what drugs Neruda was taking, helping to distinguish traces of them from those of possible poisons. “But we have the advantage that several techniques to mask toxics in the body did not exist four decades ago,” he says.
Unless they find other tissues, experts may have to rely on bones to gauge the extent of the cancer. “The presence of bone metastasis of the prostate cancer would confirm an advanced state of the illness. On the other hand, traces of toxics could be found in the spongy part of the bone that contained the bone marrow,” says Bustos.
The answer is not so clear-cut; it depends on what forensic experts find in the bones of Pablo Neruda. If the medical team cannot prove conclusively death by cancer, there will always remain suspicion that the Pinochet's right-wing dictatorship had a hand in the beloved poet's death. For those interested, there is an interview with Neruda in The Paris Review (January 1970) and a excellent article on accessing Neruda's poetry in The Poetry Foundation.

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You can read the rest of the article at [NatureNews]