For years historians have said that tuberculosis caused the death of Simón Bolívar, one of South America’s greatest military figures. President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela has taken a personal interest in the death of Bolívar and firmly believes he was the victim of an assassin and died from a deadly poison in 1830 at the age of 47.
Was he poisoned?
Two doctors, Paul G. Auwaerter of Johns Hopkins and John Dove of Edinburgh University, have reinvestigated the death of Simón Bolívar at the Historical Clinicopathological Conference (CPC), sponsored by the University of Maryland School of Medicine and the Veterans Affairs Maryland Health Care System in Baltimore.
Bolívar, a man slightly below medium height (5’6″), displayed the following symptoms 2 weeks before he died, according to the French physician who cared for him. He was apathetic, emaciated, and so dyspneic and weak that he was unable to walk. His appearance was yellow. He was hoarse and coughed constantly, producing large amounts of green sputum. An autopsy found signs of green fluid in his lungs and heart. He also hiccoughed a great deal.
Bolívar continued to cough constantly and was intermittently febrile, with hot head and cold extremities. His pulse was persistently thready. Initially he slept little and gradually drifted into delirium. There were also episodes of indigestion and vomiting, sternal pain and then both right and left flank pain, sore tongue (which was also dry, rough, and colored along its edges), and urinary incontinence. When he died on December 17, he weighed barely 50 pounds.
Dr. Auwaerter believes arsenic helped kill Simón Bolívar, but it was doctors, not an assassin, who led Bolívar to take arsenic, as it was a common treatment at the time. Dr. Auwaerter considered assassination, but most of the signs and symptoms point to slow, chronic poisoning. “Bolívar was known to ingest arsenic as a remedy for some of his ongoing illnesses—recurring headaches, wasting, hemorrhoids, and his chronic episodes of unconsciousness. Arsenic was actually a common medical remedy of the time. In fact, it has recently been discovered that a contemporary leader of Bolivar’s, George III, had super-high levels of arsenic in his body tissue and hair. It seems he had been treating himself with it.”
Dr. Auwaerter also pointed out that Bolívar could have had environmental contact with arsenic. “Bolívar spent a lot of time in Peru, and there have been Colombian mummies found there that have tested positive for high levels of arsenic, that indicates the possibility that the water in Peru may have had unusually high levels of the naturally occurring poison.” Dr. Auwaerter concluded that Bolívar may have suffered from chronic arsenic poisoning, but considered that both acute poisoning and murder were unlikely.
“What I’m finding is more consistent with chronic poisoning because of symptoms such as his skin darkening, his headaches, his extreme weight loss. His whole body is really falling apart at the end. He lived for quite some time like this. I believe it’s likely he would have succumbed to tuberculosis much earlier than he did. The idea of gradual arsenic poisoning is a good explanation to link all these symptoms together,” said Dr. Auwaerter.
Bolívar 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.
Dr. John Dove, a retired orthopedic surgeon and Bolívar scholar from Acharacle, Scotland, pointed out that a number of attempts were made on Bolívar’s life, and the list of suspects included his generals, who were in a power struggle with the leader. Dove believes “There were plenty of people who would have liked to have finished him off.” However, Dove believes that by 1830, Bolívar was dying and arsenic could have played a role, although he supports the tuberculosis diagnosis.
“This was an era where there was really no ability to confirm that someone had died of tuberculosis,” Dr. Auwaerter says. “That green fluid in the lungs and heart is very suggestive of a bacterial infection called bronchiecstasis, which was very common at the time. The green pericardial fluid is very unlikely to represent tuberculosis.”
Bolívar also appeared to have had a tumor in his lungs that caused him to be severely hoarse, with a voice so quiet he could hardly be heard for the last 6 months of his life. Lung cancer could be another complication of chronic poisoning, Dr. Auwaerter adds.
“It’s very hard to be definitive here,” he explains. “I have to say that tuberculosis is not an unreasonable explanation for his death. But, at the end of the day, there are a lot of features of this illness that argue against tuberculosis. If the body were ever to be exhumed, there would be a lot of things to look at. Arsenic testing on Bolívar’s tissue and hair could answer some of our questions.”
In July 2010, Hugo Chavez ordered the exhumation of Bolivar’s body. In July 2011, international forensics experts released their findings and claimed there was no proof of poisoning or other unnatural causes of death.
However, according the Venezuelan Scientific Research Institute, upon examining the remains of Bolivar’s body, it was determined that an electrolyte imbalance and loss of water through the intestine is what killed el Libertador.
- Medical Alumni Association of the University of Maryland. The 17th Annual Clinicopathological Conference: A medical labyrinth. www.medicalalumni.org/CPC/pages/04_2010.htm.
- NTN24 News. What really killed Simon Bolivar? July 18, 2011.www.ntn24.com/news/videos/what-really-killed-simon-bolivar.
- University of Maryland School of Medicine. Historic medical conference finds Bolivar may have been poisoned. April 28, 2010. www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2010-04/uomm-hmc042810.php.