A toxic bacteria was present in famous Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s body when he died half a century ago, McMaster University scientists have found.
The recent discovery is consistent with allegations that the Nobel Prize-winning Neruda, who was also a Communist Party politician, was assassinated days after a military coup overthrew Chile’s socialist government in 1973.
Since 2016, evolutionary geneticists and forensic experts from McMaster in Hamilton and the University of Copenhagen have been analyzing bone and tooth samples to rule out other possible causes of death and search for deadly pathogens.
The scientists have been in Chile over the past two weeks, presenting their findings to a tribunal. The hearing ended Wednesday.
McMaster researcher Debi Poinar told The Current‘s Matt Galloway Thursday that while the researchers can definitively say the botulism-causing bacteria Clostridium botulinum was in Neruda’s blood stream when he died, they can not say for certain it’s what killed him.
“But however, why is it there?” Poinar said. “It isn’t a natural organism that must be present in your body for every other reason.”
In the times after the Sept. 11 coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet, Neruda, 69, planned to enter exile where he’d be an influential critic of the dictatorship. A day before his departure, he was taken by ambulance to a Santiago clinic where he officially died on Sept. 23 from natural causes.
‘He was such a giant poet’
Hamilton poet Constanza Duran was born in Chile and was 17 when the coup took place. She told CBC Hamilton that soldiers raided her family’s home, destroying all their belongings. Relations and friends were arrested and tortured. Many never returned.
She described Neruda as “dear to everybody at the moment.”
“He was such a giant poet, a tremendous poet,” Duran said. “He was our poet.”
When he died, it was a time of grief and chaos with “people dying around us,” she said.
“Considering he was murdered wasn’t too far off.”
Greater than 40,000 people were imprisoned, tortured or slain throughout the bloody dictatorship that resulted in 1990.
Suspicions that the dictatorship was behind Neruda’s death swirled into the twenty first century, resulting in his body being exhumed in 2013 and tibia, femur and teeth samples extracted for further investigations.
In recent times, Neruda has come under increased scrutiny for admitting to raping a cleansing woman, which he wrote about in his memoir published after his death.
The Current9:49Researchers find clues to poet Pablo Neruda’s death
The Hamilton and Copenhagen scientists previously determined Neruda didn’t die of prostate cancer, which he was being treated for on the time of his death. In addition they ruled out malnutrition before scanning for various kinds of bacteria that had been used as biological weapons.
As for what Neruda could have experienced if he had died of botulism, Poinar said he would’ve suffered paralysis or septicemia, a serious blood infection.
Duran, the poet, fled Chile in 1975 and settled in Canada in 1988. She said the brand new findings “bring lots of grief” and if he was murdered it was a “horrible act of cruelty.”