An international team of genomics experts and forensic specialists said Wednesday it will study the remains of Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda to try to solve the cause of his death.
The socialist poet died in the chaos following Chile’s 1973 military coup led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet. 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.
The remains of Neruda’s bones and teeth will be analyzed by a lab at Canada’s McMaster University’s Ancient DNA Center 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 Program 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 in a statement.
Neruda was best known for his love poems. But he was also a leftist politician and friend of Marxist President Salvador Allende, who killed himself rather than surrender to troops during the Sept. 11, 1973, coup led by Pinochet.
Neruda, who was 69 and had prostate cancer, was traumatized by the coup and the persecution and killing of his friends. He planned to go into exile, where he would have been an influential voice against the dictatorship.
But a day before his planned departure, he was taken by ambulance to a clinic in Santiago where he had been treated for cancer and other ailments. Neruda officially died there Sept. 23 from natural causes. But suspicions that the dictatorship had a hand in the death remained long after Chile returned to democracy in 1990.
Although the tests carried out after the exhumation of Neruda’s remains showed no signs that he was poisoned, his family and driver demanded further investigation. The judge investigating the case has asked for testing for substances that were not looked for in the first round of tests.