How did Pablo Neruda really die? Forensic science weighs in.

Almost 40 years ago, Chilean poet Pablo Neruda died. Whether the Nobel prizewinner’s death was from prostate cancer (the official diagnosis) or poisoning has been a longstanding mystery. But earlier this week, Neruda's body was removed from its tomb, launching a forensic investigation that could establish once and for all how the artist really met his end.

Writing for Nature News, Michele Catanzaro has assembled a piece that explains the controversy behind Neruda's death; why his body has been exhumed; the pertinent whos, whens, and wheres of the forensic investigation; and – perhaps most importantly – whether said investigation can really be conclusive at all:

False negatives are possible, says Barry Logan, president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences, who is not involved in the investigation. “If experts find toxics that should not be there, then the result will be unequivocal,” he says. But some plant poisons are not detectable even in optimal forensic conditions, and traces of cyanide may be artefacts of decomposition, Logan says. “Finally,” he says, “the analysis may say whether a substance is present or not, but quantitative estimations are difficult in these conditions.” A poisoning that consisted of an overdose of a legal medication, such as morphine, would be difficult to detect.

Whether the investigation will offer any closure is questionable, as similar examinations of suspicious deaths among Hispanic political icons have proven largely inconclusive. Ilan Stavans, a professor of Latin American and Latino culture at Amherst College, comments in a recent NYT op-ed:

In 2011, Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected president-elect who was deposed by a military junta in 1973, was disinterred to verify that he’d fatally shot himself. (The finding — yes — is still disputed.) The late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez ordered in 2010 that the tomb of his idol, Simón Bolívar, be opened to test his theory that the liberator died of poisoning, not tuberculosis. (The theory remains unproved.)

And in 2008, a Spanish judge authorized the unearthing of a mass grave in the southern town of Alfácar to see whether Federico García Lorca, the poet and dramatist who was assassinated by Fascists in 1936, at the outset of the Civil War, was buried there. (The results were inconclusive.)

It sounds like nobody is expecting any results for at least a few more months. We're not holding our breath, but it'd be nice to see one of these investigations resolve more questions than it raises.

Read more at Nature and The New York Times.