New tech examines old Jack London mysteries

“Whether Jack London had used heroin and injected it, or had used morphine and injected it,” the pharmacologist said, “we found no valid evidence.”

It is known from his wife Charmian and his own writings that London had reason to use an expectorant: he had the occasional flu and bronchitis and was a smoker. “At one point he got checked for TB because he thought he might have it because he had a chronic cough,” Rocco said.

Discoveries about Stalin, Chekhov

Nevertheless, other writers kept the rumors going.

In 1977, Andrew Sinclair wrote in “Jack: a Biography,” “The medicine chest still on display at the Jack London Museum near Glen Ellen contains… heroin, morphine and opium among others painkillers…. In other words, he was taking the fatal ‘ups and downs’ of modern pill salesmen.

And writer E. L Doctorow, in a 1988 collection of essays, referred to London’s “death at forty, of uremia, or stroke, or accidental overdose of his favorite painkiller, heroin, or maybe all of that.”

This museum exhibit also piqued Rocco’s interest. He has long been drawn to the history of medicine. An Oakland resident who teaches at Samuel Merritt University, he also took an interest in London, which, when not globetrotting, spent its early years in Oakland and its later years in Glen Ellen.

While the findings aren’t explosive, they are important to “set the record straight” on London and its alleged drug abuse, Righetti said in a Zoom interview from Milan.

“That’s our goal. Sometimes historians don’t know, so they say, “Oh, that guy died of an overdose,” Righetti said. “But thanks to our technologies, by investigating the original manuscripts or even the clothes that people wore, we can set the record straight. Yes, this guy took cocaine or he took a painkiller via morphine. Where historians don’t know – they guess or even they make it up – our data is absolutely clear.

Rocco had met Righetti at a conference years earlier and the two had stayed in touch. And after reading an article in the New Yorker magazine about the scientific discoveries Righetti and the Zilbersteins were making thanks to EVA, he asked if the Italian scientist and his team might be interested in analyzing Jack London’s objects.

“It is hoped that the current methodology will be able to open the doors of museums, state archives and private collections to detect the biological traces left by artists, scholars and men of culture in their masterpieces”, said declared the trio in an article published in The Journal of Proteome. To research.

An enthusiastic Righetti said: “There is all kinds of information opened up by this research. For example, no one knew until a few months ago that Stalin suffered from the same type of depression as Winston Churchill.

He and the Zilbersteins examined the margins of the pages of a book about Ivan the Terrible that Stalin had read. From the saliva traces Stalin left on the pages – many people wet a finger with their tongue to turn a page – they found biological evidence that the Russian dictator had taken lithium salts, a common treatment for the disorder bipolar, which causes extreme mood swings. .

“Everyone was surprised, because no one knew. Historians didn’t know that,” Righetti said. While Churchill was open about the depression he called “The Black Dog”, Stalin kept his mental illness a secret. A physician at the time who dared to suggest Stalin’s illness died suddenly a day later.

Gleb Zilberstein examined a shirt worn by Chekhov on the day of his death and confirmed what had only been assumed by speculation – that the writer had died of tuberculosis. They also recovered morphine from a manuscript touched by famous Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov.

The ability to use charged plastic to remove proteins or almost any chemical from an artifact without destroying it offers intriguing possibilities for historical discovery.

Zilberstein claimed he had uncovered evidence of something unknown about Jack London: that he was diabetic, although Zilberstein could not say whether London had the often fatal type A or type B diabetes. , a condition that may have contributed to his kidney failure.

Rocco is skeptical that the writer, who suffered from chronic illnesses picked up while traveling abroad, may have had diabetes and that no doctor diagnosed it at the time.

Lou Leal, the volunteer historian at Jack London State Historic Park, believes London died of kidney failure triggered by mercury poisoning from a paste he made to treat open wounds caused by yaws , a relative of syphilis which the writer contracted in the Solomon Islands.

Questions remain

The researchers acknowledge that the results of this first round of testing do not tell the whole story. They just add to it.

It was determined that the items they examined were only in use until 1915, a year before London died. So they don’t definitively show what London was taking and how much he took just before his death. But they indicate that he did not abuse illicit drugs, such as injection heroin or opium, at least until a year before his death.

“In the few days leading up to his death, whether he had taken massive amounts of medication, we don’t know,” Righetti said. “We analyzed what was in a medicine case he had used years before. So nobody knows. But we discovered that in his medicine kit he only had over-the-counter medicines that he could get at any pharmacy or on prescription.

Rocco said the research, published in an article by the Institute of the French Academy of Sciences, had a revolutionary aspect. It was the first time EVA had been used to examine artifacts in the United States.

In light of the importance of the subject and the technology, Rocco said he felt responsible “to get it right.

“Whatever we found had better be true and proven,” he said. “We are dealing with an important American writer and his story. I didn’t want to distort it or make a mistake. … The analysis was done free of charge as a favor to me and to Righetti, in the hope that we are contributing something to America for the first time.

You can contact editor Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or [email protected] On Twitter @megmcconahey.

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