Scientists try to solve mystery of poet Pablo Neruda’s death

Left-wing poet Pablo Neruda after right-wing coup in Chile. Picture: AP
Left-wing poet Pablo Neruda after right-wing coup in Chile. Picture: AP
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An international team of genomics experts and forensic specialists are going to study the remains of Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda to try to solve the cause of his death.

The left-wing poet died in the chaos following Chile’s 1973 military coup led by General Augusto Pinochet and some people have speculated he was poisoned by agents of the right-wing dictatorship.

Neruda’s body was exhumed in 2013, but tests showed no toxic agents in his bones. Even so, Chile’s government said in 2015 that “it’s clearly possible and highly probable that a third party” was involved in his death, although it warned that more tests needed to be carried out.

Neruda’s bones and teeth will be analysed by a lab at Canada’s McMaster University’s ancient DNA centre and the University of Copenhagen’s department of forensic medicine.

The panel of experts will focus on identifying pathogenic bacteria that might have caused Neruda’s death. The researchers say they will use techniques to “extract, purify and enrich fragments of the bacterial DNA”, which they hope will yield genomic data that will help solve the nearly 43-year old mystery surrounding his death.

“The search for the truth of the death of the poet Pablo Neruda is a forensic challenge. We hope that the work of the Chilean Human Rights Programme and the scientists will contribute to the reconciliation between the various groups in Chile,” forensic geneticist Niels Morling, director of the department of forensic medicine at the University of Copenhagen, said.

Neruda was best known for his love poems but was also a Communist Party politician and friend of Marxist president Salvador Allende, who killed himself rather than surrender during Pinochet’s 11 September 1973 coup.