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What Killed Alexander The Great?

16 October 2003
What Killed Alexander The Great?
Otago Scientist Helps Solve Mysterious Death of Ancient Conqueror

It’s one of the great whodunits of history. Alexander the Great, dead in his prime at 33 years – was it murder or death by natural causes?

University of Otago poisons expert Dr Leo Schep may hold the key to the mystery that has baffled historians for nearly two and a half thousand years.

His theory is one of the leads in a documentary, Alexander the Great’s Mysterious Death, which will be broadcast in the UK on Thursday this week (NZ time), offering a plausible explanation for Alexander’s untimely death, based on scientific and forensic research on information that has come down through history. The film is expected to reach an ultimate audience of 30 million people worldwide.

Dr Schep, from the University’s National Poisons Centre, had his theory on the murder weapon taken up as the lead case scenario, after fielding a call from a researcher with UK film company Atlantic Production’s researcher late last year.

“She explained that her company had done a documentary on the death of Egyptian king Tutankhammun. Now Discovery Channel had contracted them to look into making a film about whether Alexander the Great had been poisoned, and she wanted to check out some facts.”

Dr Schep “immediately dispelled” her query about strychnine, and then offered to examine plants known to the early Greeks and Romans which produced the symptoms Alexander was said to have suffered. Two weeks later he emailed a full report, and within a week had received an invitation to come to London to feature on the documentary. “It took on a life of its own.”

His surprise entry into filmmaking was about “being enthusiastic and delivering the goods” says Dr Schep. “I’d also come up with something that no-one else had considered as a cause of death.”

The company first shot footage at the University of Otago, then flew Dr Schep to London in March to film him looking at plants and discussing the results of laboratory tests. He was then filmed with an anaesthetist and a simulator “body” which manifested the symptoms of poisoning, showing the vital signs deteriorating over time.

His final interview was with a retired Deputy Commissioner of Police from Scotland Yard in a mock homocide enquiry in which he gave evidence about his suspicions on the likely casue of death.

The three and a half weeks away were both “challenging and exciting” says Dr Schep. But even more rewarding is the chance to “come up with a scenario that had never been considered by historians and then to articulate it to such a large audience. It’s very exciting.”

Was it murder and if so, what was the poison? That’s strictly under wraps until next week when the documentary is broadcast. One thing he is prepared to divulge: there will be some surprises.

The documentary will show on BBC’s Channel 5 on 22 October and on Discovery Channel in the first spencer quarter of 2004. It’s likely the documentary will also broadcast in New Zealand at some time in the future, Dr Schep says.


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