New evidence confirms Phar Lap was poisoned by arsenic?

By Grant Jacobs 19/06/2010

Scientists have examined spectral properties along the length of hairs that were growing at the time of Phar Lap’s death to get a chronology of ingestion of arsenic in similar way that comparing different tree rings can point to environmental conditions at different ages of a tree.

(Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
(Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Phar Lap is a legend in New Zealand, both for his racing prowess and also because Australians claim him as their own. Locals in Timaru and elsewhere in New Zealand beg to differ. (He was foaled near Timaru, New Zealand, but trained and raced in Australia.)

Speculations that Phar Lap was poisoned by arsenic are not new. My understanding is that the evidence to date has been circumstantial rather than definitive. My caution here is partly because this is an extremely hotly-debated topic in some circles in New Zealand and Australia, and I have no wish to be ’flame bait’…! Readers can (kindly) judge for themselves.

The abstract of the report reads:

Fresh physical evidence about the demise of the racehorse Phar Lap (see photograph) has been gathered from the study of mane hair samples by synchrotron radiation analysis with high resolution X-ray fluorescence (XRF) and X-ray absorption near edge structure (XANES) analyses. The results are indicative of arsenic ingestion and metabolism, and show that the racing champion died from arsenic poisoning.

These two techniques detect the presence of metals and what the metal is covalently (chemically) bonded to, respectively. Rather than repeat what they have written, I refer readers to the brief report on this to be found on the NASW (National Association of Science Writers (USA)) website, including the research reference. The keys points raised there are that the ’timing’ of the arsenic and the nature of it indicate that it was ingested before Phar Lap’s death (i.e. is not chemicals used in preservation of the hide).

(I’d write more of an explanation, but we are having a stunningly warm and sunny winter’s day here in Dunedin – 14ËšC so far – and there are outside jobs to do on the house…)

HT: @BoraZ.

Addendum (added 26-June-2010)

Those wanting a story with more background to Phar Lap and the history of this story, should read science writer Deborah Blum’s article.

0 Responses to “New evidence confirms Phar Lap was poisoned by arsenic?”

  • Just finding large amounts of arsenic indicators in the hair cannot show that the horse “died from arsenic poisoning”. You’d have to be sure that it hadn’t been shot 2 minutes before it would have keeled over from poisoning, for example, and the hair doesn’t show that.

    Not that this is a *practical* objection, it’s more of a philosophical objection to the language seeming to be so certain in what was a very small extract of the report 😉

  • The analysis does more “just” show large amounts of arsenic in the hair; it looks at when the arsenic was ingested and the nature of the arsenic.

    The portion quoted is not “a very small extract” of the report, that it is not lifted from the body of the report, but is the (full) abstract of the report, i.e. the authors’ summary.