Friday, June 04, 2010

Phar Lap

I just came across an interesting bit of news.
Do you remember that movie about the Aussie racehorse Phar Lap?
As I watched it, I thought that since Phar Lap lived through the attempted shooting, he was going to live a nice, long life and end up cropping grass in a pasture.  When he died abruptly from unknown causes, I was horror-stricken. 

Of course, a lot of people at the time were, too!  No one knew for sure what killed him.  There were lots of ideas, but everything was unclear.  Some people suspected colic, and others thought it might have been poisoning.  The autopsy was inclusive, and by the time they got around to testing for arsenic poisoning, Phar Lap's remains had already been preserved -- using a process that involved arsenic.

Eighty years after Phar Lap died, there's some light shining into this mystery.  A group in Australia (appropriately enough!) studied samples of Phar Lap's hair with a method that could distinguish between arsenic that was applied to his coat and arsenic he would have eaten.  They found that Phar Lab was poisoned with arsenic.

Boy, is it sad, but at least we know part of what happened!  Of course, what's still not known for certain is who actually poisoned him.

Here's the findings from the paper:

Determination of Arsenic Poisoning and Metabolism in Hair by Synchrotron Radiation: The Case of Phar Lap

Kempson, I.; Henry, Dermot. Angewandte Chemie, International Edition, 2010, 49, 4237-4240.

Fresh physical evidence about the demise of the racehorse Phar Lap... 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."

(I checked the Wikipedia article about Phar Lap, and while this paper was just published this year, evidently this research group first released these results in 2008.  I hadn't heard about it until I saw this paper, though, so I thought I'd pass it along!)

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