Pablo Neruda Died From Cancer, Not Poison: Chilean Officials

on November 09 2013 1:45 PM
pabloneruda
Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in 1966, seven years before his death. Wikimedia Commons/Library of Congress

Famed poet Pablo Neruda was felled by prostate cancer, not a poisoner’s hand, Chilean officials said on Friday.

In April, Neruda’s bones were removed from underground to test claims from the poet’s chauffeur and family that he was assassinated. Neruda died in 1973 at the age of 69, less than two weeks after the right-wing forces of General Augusto Pinochet overthrew the socialist president Salvador Allende. Officials at the time declared that Neruda died from prostate cancer, but some of his family members and driver accused Pinochet agents of injecting Neruda with poison.

“The toxicological analyses of the bones of Mr. Pablo Neruda confirmed the presence of pharmaceuticals used for the treatment of cancerous diseases, specifically prostate cancer, which were used at the time,” Patricio Bustos, director of the Chilean Justice Ministry’s legal medical service, said on Friday, according to the Santiago Times. “Chemical agents which could have caused the death of Mr. Pablo Neruda were not found.”

Forensic examiners also found traces of metastatic lesions on Neruda’s bones, confirming the presence of prostate cancer. However, the investigation still remains open – a judge is waiting on the results from a DNA test to confirm that the bones actually belong to Neruda. The poet’s nephew, Rodolfo Reyes, called for further scrutiny.

“Although what [Bustos says] is respectable, I do not rule out any other action that may help shed light on the death. This is an initial report and there is more to come,” Reyes told the Santiago Times.

Neruda’s driver, Manuel Araya, has long held the writer was poisoned while he was being treated for cancer at a hospital in Santiago. Interest in a possible conspiracy resurfaced when Sergio Draper, the doctor that treated Neruda, began talking of a second, mysterious doctor known only as “Price” that came to the poet’s bedside.

There appears to be no record of a Dr. Price at the hospital that time, and Draper’s description of the second doctor supposedly matches that of the spy Michael Townley. Townley worked for both the CIA and the Chilean secret police under Pinochet. He was convicted of assassinating Orlando Letelier, former Chilean ambassador to the U.S., and is currently in the witness protection program. But according to the Los Angeles Times, Townley was most likely in Florida at the time of Neruda’s death. The spy had fled Chile after murdering a TV station worker.

It might seem amazing that forensic scientists can deduce clues about Neruda’s demise 40 years after the fact, but in fact they often work with much older remains. A chemical analysis of the remains of 16th century astronomer Tycho Brahe put to rest rumors that he died of mercury poisoning (the actual cause was most likely a bladder infection, caused in part by a rupture that occurred after he was too polite to use the bathroom during a royal banquet in 1601). And French forensic sleuth Philippe Charlier and colleagues found that Catholic relics supposedly containing the bones of Joan of Arc actually held remains of a cat and an Egyptian mummy.