Understanding the death of a champion

26 October, 2006

Phar Lap and his strapper Tommy Woodcock
Phar Lap and his strapper Tommy Woodcock.
Source: Museum Victoria

Phar Lap and the Synchrotron Research Project.

Suspicion has long surrounded the death of Australia’s most famous racehorse: Phar Lap. This week, the uncertainly surrounding Phar Lap’s death came back into focus as a result of new research conducted by Dr Ivan Kempson and Museum Victoria’s Senior Collection Manager, Sciences, Dermot Henry.

Six strands of hair taken from Phar Lap’s mane, including two attached to a 2 mm section of hide, were tested for signs of ingested arsenic. Hair incorporates products from the blood supply as it grows and as such can present a historical time-line of exposure to toxins.

Dr Kempson’s previous research has involved forensic analysis of hair primarily by alternative and non-destructive methods, including those offered by synchrotron sources.

The high brightness of synchrotron sources enables detection of low concentrations of metals in small sample areas. Synchrotron analysis has previously been used in other famous hair cases, for example, high levels of lead were identified in Beethoven’s hair when it was analysed at the Advanced Photon Source near Chicago.

Two of Phar Lap’s hairs were sectioned and three longitudinal hairs were mounted for examination using synchrotron X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF), which facilitated mapping the distribution of the arsenic within the hairs. Areas of significant arsenic concentrations were further analysed using X-Ray Absorption Near Edge Spectroscopy (XANES) to characterise the form of the arsenic within the hair.

Preliminary indicators suggest that it is possible to distinguish between arsenic which has been ingested and arsenic used in animal preservation. The results show a distribution of arsenic within Phar Lap’s hair that is consistent with ingesting a large dose of the poison within 30 hours of death. While it is common knowledge that arsenic was used in horse tonics in the 1930’s this is the first evidence that Phar Lap ingested a large amount of arsenic close to his death.

Research continues...

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