Latest Alexander Poisoning Suggestion

… comes from the journal Clinical Toxicology … here’s the abstract:

Objective. To investigate the death of Alexander the Great to determine if he died from natural causes or was poisoned and, if the latter, what was the most likely poison. Methods. OVID MEDLINE (January 1950–May 2013) and ISI Web of Science (1900–May 2013) databases were searched and bibliographies of identified articles were screened for additional relevant studies. These searches identified 53 relevant citations. Classical literature associated with Alexander’s death. There are two divergent accounts of Alexander’s death. The first has its origins in the Royal Diary, allegedly kept in Alexander’s court. The second account survives in various versions of the Alexander Romance. Nature of the terminal illness. The Royal Diary describes a gradual onset of fever, with a progressive inability to walk, leading to Alexander’s death, without offering a cause of his demise. In contrast, the Romance implies that members of Alexander’s inner circle conspired to poison him. The various medical hypotheses include cumulative debilitation from his previous wounds, the complications of alcohol imbibing (resulting in alcohol hepatitis, acute pancreatitis, or perforated peptic ulcer), grief, a congenital abnormality, and an unhealthy environment in Babylon possibly exacerbated by malaria, typhoid fever, or some other parasitic or viral illness. Was it poisoning? Of all the chemical and botanical poisons reviewed, we believe the alkaloids present in the various Veratrum species, notably Veratrum album, were capable of killing Alexander with comparable symptoms to those Alexander reportedly experienced over the 12 days of his illness. Veratrum poisoning is heralded by the sudden onset of epigastric and substernal pain, which may also be accompanied by nausea and vomiting, followed by bradycardia and hypotension with severe muscular weakness. Alexander suffered similar features for the duration of his illness. Conclusion. If Alexander the Great was poisoned, Veratrum album offers a more plausible cause than arsenic, strychnine, and other botanical poisons.

… and here is how it was rather responsibly reported in the New Zealand Herald:

An Otago University scientist may have unravelled a 2,000-year-old mystery of what killed Alexander the Great.

National Poisons Centre toxicologist Dr Leo Schep thinks the culprit could be poisonous wine made from an innocuous-looking plant.

Classical scholars have been deeply divided about what killed the Macedonian leader, who built a massive empire before his death, aged 32, in June of 323BC. Some accounts say he died of natural causes but others suggested members of his inner circle conspired to poison him at a celebratory banquet.

Dr Schep, who has been researching the toxicological evidence for a decade, said some of the poisoning theories – including arsenic and strychnine – were laughable.

Death would have come far too fast, he said.

His research, co-authored by Otago University classics expert Dr Pat Wheatley and published in the medical journal Clinical Toxicology, found the most plausible culprit was Veratrum album, known as white hellebore.

The white-flowered plant, which can be fermented into a poisonous wine, was well-known to the Greeks as a herbal treatment for inducing vomiting. Crucially, it could have accounted for the 12 torturous days that Alexander took to die, speechless and unable to walk. Other suggested poisons – including hemlock, aconite, wormwood, henbane and autumn crocus – would likely have killed him far more quickly.

Dr Schep began looking into the mystery in 2003 when he was approached by a company working on a BBC documentary.

“They asked me to look into it for them and I said, ‘Oh yeah, I’ll give it a go, I like a challenge’ – thinking I wasn’t going to find anything. And to my utter surprise, and their surprise, we found something that could fit the bill.”

Dr Schep’s theory was that Veratrum album could have been fermented as a wine that was given to the leader. It would have tasted “very bitter” but it could have been sweetened with wine – and Alexander was likely to have been very drunk at the banquet.

But whether Alexander was poisoned is still a mystery. “We’ll never know really … “

… we really haven’t heard anything on this particular theory for three or four years now … here’s a link which will take you to previous suggestions: Puddle Question: What Killed Alexander the Great?. Also worth noting is an abstract of a paper by Adrienne Mayor on the subject (although the link to the paper itself doesn’t appear to work): Citanda: The Deadly Styx River and the Death of Alexander.

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