BALTIMORE — Arsenic helped kill Simon Bolivar, according to a Johns Hopkins doctor who is questioning the tuberculosis diagnosis given as the cause of the Latin liberator's death in 1830.
Doctors, not treachery, led Bolivar to take arsenic, however, said Dr. Paul Auwaerter, who presented his case Friday at an annual University of Maryland School of Medicine conference on the deaths of famous figures.
Arsenic was a common treatment at the time and may have contributed to Bolivar's 1830 death, he said.
"Tuberculosis has been the conventional explanation for so many years, but that doesn't make sense," Auwaerter said before the presentation. "It really doesn't explain his final six months."
Bolivar is not reported to have coughed up blood, and green phlegm and green fluid later found around his heart suggest a bacterial infection, not tuberculosis, he said.
The Venezuelan-born Bolivar is a favorite of current Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The Venezuelan embassy sent two representatives to the event, including an official who led a council Chavez convened to examine Bolivar's death.
Reacting to the doctor's findings, Chavez reiterated on Friday that he believes Bolivar was murdered.
"They killed him. Here in my heart for years I've had the conviction that Bolivar didn't die of tuberculosis," Chavez said during a televised speech in western Venezuela. "I don't know if we'll be able to prove it, but I think they assassinated Bolivar."
Auwaerter said his finding don't support any claims of intrigue.
While arsenic probably led to many of Bolivar's health problems, it was most likely taken as a tonic, and he also may have inadvertently been exposed through tainted food and water, Auwaerter said.
"I don't support the assassination theory," Auwaerter said.
Bolivar is one of Central and South America's greatest heroes, leading countries from Peru to Venezuela to independence from Spain. However, by 1830 he was in ill health, suffering fevers, loss of consciousness, headaches, shortness of breath, weight loss, skin problems and other conditions.
Dr. John Dove, a retired orthopedic surgeon and Bolivar scholar from Acharacle, Scotland, was also invited to speak at the conference. He said a number of attempts were made on Bolivar's life and the list of suspects included his generals, who were in a power struggle with the leader.
"There were plenty of people who would have liked to have finished him off," Dove said.
However, Dove said he believes that by 1830, Bolivar was dying and arsenic could have played a role, although he supports the tuberculosis diagnosis.
The conference is held yearly at the school, where researchers in the past have re-examined the diagnoses of figures including King Tut, Christopher Columbus and Abraham Lincoln.