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Will we ever know for certain what killed Simón Bolívar?

When Simón Bolívar died on this day 185 years ago, tuberculosis was thought to have been the disease that killed him. An autopsy showing tubercles of different sizes in his lungs seemed to confirm the diagnosis, though neither microscopic examination nor bacterial cultures of his tissues were performed. And so, for nearly two centuries, galloping consumption was accepted as the disorder that took the life of the man who liberated most of South America from Spanish domination. Then, during a 2010 conference at the University of Maryland School of Medicine devoted to the mysterious illnesses of famous historical figures, Dr. Paul Auwaerter, an Infectious Diseases specialist at Johns Hopkins, shook up Bolívar “scholars,” not the least of whom was then Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, by diagnosing El Liberator’s fatal disorder as chronic arsenic intoxication. Although Auwaerter speculated that the likely source of the arsenic that killed Bolívar was a combination of arsenic-containing medication given for recurrent attacks of malaria and arsenic-contaminated water consumed while campaigning in the Andes Mountains, Chávez had other ideas.

Simón Bolívar by Iamcharles66. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
“El Libertador SIMÓN BOLÍVAR” by Iamcharles66. CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Having long argued that Bolívar did not succumb to disease but was murdered, Chávez declared that Colombian assassins were the source of the arsenic that killed his patron saint. In Auwaerter’s diagnosis–that of a master clinician affiliated with one of the world’s preeminent medical institutions–he had found vindication. Motivated in part by the diagnosis, Chávez and a team of soldiers, forensic specialists, and presidential aids entered the National Pantheon in Caracas shortly after midnight on 16 July 2010, unscrewed the lid of Bolívar’s casket, and removed several fragments of bone and some teeth for analysis at a newly inaugurate state forensic laboratory. The specimens first were to be used to verify the remains as those of El Liberator by comparing DNA retrieved from them with that extracted from the bones of Bolívar’s sisters, Juana and María Antonia. Next they were to be examined for arsenic, tuberculosis, and other agents possibly responsible for Bolívar’s death. Five years have since passed; Chávez has died, and there is still no word from the state forensic laboratory as to the results of the tests performed on Bolívar’s remains. If and when test results are revealed, disputes will almost certainly arise not just as to their meaning but also their validity, in which case we likely will be no closer to knowing what really killed Simón Bolívar than his contemporaries were at the time of his death.

Featured image credit: Simon Bolivar Statue by Cliff. CC BY 2.0 via Flickr.

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