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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 15th January 2014

A poison mystery linked to someone who died over 2,300 years ago has been back in the news but, for me at least, the mystery isn’t about the person or the poison. The person is Alexander the Great who died in 323 BC. The poison is Veratrum album, white hellebore. The mystery comes later.

This is one of those stories that has taken a time to roll out. It began on 27th December 2013 when my Google Alert took me to an abstract of a piece in ‘Clinical Toxicology’ entitled ‘Was the death of Alexander the Great due to poisoning? Was it Veratrum album?’1 For the reason I’ll come to, I didn’t pay it a lot of attention.

Then, on 7th January 2014 Leon Gussow wrote about it on The Poison Review2 and I offered a couple of comments (in the context of this piece that amounts to a spoiler alert).

I’m guessing that this is one of those stories that sits in a journalist’s inbox until the time is available for a dig into the less obvious items because it was 12th January 2104 before ‘The Independent’ carried it3 and the 14th before ‘The Huffington Post’ joined in.4

As Leon Gussow pointed out there can be no demonstration of the truth of new information about an ancient event but the original piece had two levels of speculation. The suggestion is that there is a high probability that Alexander the Great died as a result of Veratrum album poisoning. The second level of speculation is that this was administered in wine that he drank.

The mystery I referred to is why this is news. This is certainly not the first time Leo J Schep has been involved in Alexander’s death. Issue 12 of the University of Otago Magazine5 from October 2005 has a piece about his involvement in a 2003 Discovery Channel documentary that considered whether white hellebore caused Alexander’s death. The university has also held conferences about Alexander the Great at which the probable involvement of the plant has been discussed.

The Discovery Channel documentary can be found on YouTube* (divided into five parts). Part 3 deals with the stories that Alexander was ill for a number of days before his death but suggests this may have been a fabrication to cover up his murder.

*UPDATE. The video clips I'd linked to had been illegally uploaded and were removed by YouTube. I've left the text in place as it gives some of the story.

Part 4 then puts forward a way in which Alexander’s wine may have been poisoned. It includes Dr Schep talking about how he came to the conclusion that Alexander had drunk wine poisoned with Veratrum album.

But it is the fifth part that offers what I believe to be the most satisfactory theory - that the plant was used medicinally and Alexander received an overdose.

As I point out on the plant page, white hellebore was known to be a strong laxative and doctors were advised not to give it to weak or effeminate men and never to give it to women and children. It seems to me that Alexander may have feared his strong man reputation would be endangered if he discontinued the treatment.

It is possible that the new paper is intended to revise the authors' previous thoughts and put adulterated wine in place of overdosed medication as the most likely cause of Alexander's death but there is nothing in the abstract to suggest this. It seems to be being presented as new work and why that should be remains a mystery.

References

1.    Was the death of Alexander the Great due to poisoning? Was it Veratrum album? Leo J. Schep ,  Robin J. Slaughter, J. Allister Vale and Pat Wheatley Clinical Toxicology January 2014
2.    Was Alexander the Great poisoned? thepoisonreview.com
3.    Mystery of Alexander the Great's death solved? Ruler was 'killed by toxic wine' claim scientists The Independent 12th January 2014
4.    Was Alexander The Great Poisoned By Toxic Wine? The Huffington Post 14th January 2014
5.    University of Otago Magazine Issue 12 October 2005 page 23

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