How Pablo Neruda died right after 1973 Chilean coup is clearer, thanks to McMaster researchers


Published February 21, 2023 at 4:23 pm

Researchers at McMaster University contributed to the scientific sleuthing that supports claims that Chilean poet Pablo Neruda was covertly assassinated soon after the United States-backed military coup in his country 50 years ago.

A tribunal in Chile has been investigating the case of Neruda, with relatives of the 1971 Nobel Prize in Literature hopeful of a criminal investigation into his death. Neruda was in hospital for cancer treatment when his friend, President Salvador Allende, was overthrown on Sept. 11, 1973, and replaced by a military dictatorship led by Augusto Pinochet. Neruda suspected a doctor at the hospital injected him with an unknown substance to try to kill him on orders of Pinochet. He checked out of the hospital with plans to exile in Mexico but died hours later on Sept. 23 of that year.

In 2016, Chile admitted Neruda might have been murdered. Since then, McMaster researcher Debi Poinar, evolutionary geneticist Hendrik Poinar and other McMaster Ancient DNA laboratory members, along with collaborators in Chile and Denmark, have examined exhumed remains of Neruda. In one of the poet’s molars, they found evidence of the same deadly toxin — known as C. botulinum — that the Chilean dictatorship used to try to kill political prisoners in 1981.

“Perhaps it will be impossible to have a definitive answer as to how the poet died, but so far, the possibility of poisoning by a third party has not been ruled out by the scientific evidence we have found to date,” Debi Poinar told

The international forensic experts’ findings, while not hard proof of a direct cause of state-sanctioned extralegal killing, were presented to the Chilean tribunal over the first two weeks of this month.

The researchers had to cross-check to ensure that the bacterium in the human remains of one of the 20th century’s great humanists was present when he died and was not the residue of a half-century of environmental contamination. That involved checking the concentration of C. botulinum in the soil surrounding Neruda’s gravesite to make it was not from the same strains as the one present in the molar.

Hendrik Poinar told that similar methods were used while studying the Black Death pandemic of the mid-14th century.

Through his works, such as Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, prominence as a diplomat, and mysterious death, he achieved lasting fame in the western world. He was even referenced posthumously, 22 years after his death, in a 1995 episode of The Simpsons entitled “Bart Sells His Soul.”

After Bart Simpson, who has sold his soul to Milhouse Van Houten for $5, fails to laugh at one of his father’s mishaps, Lisa Simpson notes, “Hmm, Pablo Neruda said laughter is the language of the soul.” Ten-year-old Bart brusquely snaps back at his little sister, “I am familiar with the works of Pablo Neruda.”

A Chilean court will continue the study phase of responding to the scientists’ report to see if a criminal investigation may be opened, reported U.S. National Public Radio.

(Photo: Wikimedia Commons.)

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