Phar Lap arsenic mystery solved

19 June, 2008

Phar Lap in display case
Phar Lap in display case at Melbourne Museum.
Source: Museum Victoria

New research announced at Melbourne Museum today confirms champion racehorse Phar Lap ingested a lethal dosage of arsenic hours before his death.

Researchers Dr Ivan Kempson from the University of South Australia and Dermot Henry, Manager, Natural Science Collections at Museum Victoria, determined that it was possible to distinguish between arsenic which had been ingested and that used during the taxidermy process.

This proves that Phar Lap had ingested a large dose of arsenic in the last 30 to 40 hours of his life.

“We have been able to find suitable taxidermied horses to compare the behaviour of the arsenic used in the preservation process with arsenic which has been ingested. Our findings are underscored by the results of Phar Lap’s autopsy, which are consistent with other published cases we have found of horses dying from arsenic poisoning,” explained Henry.

“Hair incorporates products from the blood supply and as it grows can present a historical time-line of exposure to toxins. Tests using intense X-rays to detect arsenic in Phar Lap’s hair, were conducted at the Synchrotron in Chicago in 2005, 2006 and 2007.

“The synchrotron makes it possible to detect low concentrations of metals in very small samples and allows detailed chemical mapping on the nanometre scale,” said Kempson.

It was also necessary to determine whether it was possible to distinguish ingested arsenic from arsenic which may have been used as a preservation agent in the preparation of Phar Lap’s hide.

“Comparisons were made between arsenic in hair from historical museum specimens, which had been preserved using arsenic, and arsenic in hair from a pig that had ingested a fatal dose of arsenic, in a separate, unrelated project,” explained Henry.

Preliminary results, reported in October 2006, suggested that Phar Lap had ingested arsenic. However researchers then had not yet found a suitable taxidermied horse to compare the behaviour of the arsenic used in the preservation process in horse hairs.

Comments (9)

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Epic 26 April, 2010 15:48
Thomas 26 April, 2010 15:50
Thanks for the information. It really helped me with my Famous Australian Project!
Discovery Centre 27 April, 2010 16:52

Glad we could help Thomas!

Emily 17 March, 2011 20:55
Thanks for the infomation,it will help me heaps with my school poster in science on arsenic! :D
Billy 1 August, 2011 16:56
Hi guys Great info! It helped me so much with my inquiry on Phar Lap!
Maddy 2 August, 2011 20:00
Thanks for the info it really helped with my science assessment.....
Jess 7 August, 2011 17:28
Thanks for the truth, it will help on my history assignment on famous things in 1920 to 1930 :)
nadya 29 April, 2012 19:03
thank you !!! :) this info really helped on my IFS assighnment!!!
Joel 15 August, 2012 10:18
Thanks so much it helped me with my history assesment.
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