Released By: Australian Synchrotron
Release Date: Thu 19 June 2008

Specialist synchrotron techniques have been used to reveal the mystery of Phar Lap's untimely demise. Research results released today at Melbourne Museum, the home of Phar Lap, confirm preliminary findings that Phar Lap died from arsenic poisoning.

The final stages of this forensic investigation was funded by the Australian Synchrotron and the Victorian Government enabling access to a microspectroscopy beamline to validate preliminary findings by Dr Ivan Kempson from the University of South Australia and Dermot Henry, Manager, Natural Science Collections at Museum Victoria.

Results from investigations by Dr Ivan Kempson using intense x-rays, generated by a synchrotron, on Phar Lap hair samples, was able to differentiate between arsenic which had entered the hair cells by ingestion via the blood stream and arsenic which had infused the hair cells by the taxidermy process.

Dr Ivan Kempson used the incredibly high resolution only available from a synchrotron light source to detect the concentrations and distributions of arsenic in the hair samples. Using a microprobe which is a mapping scanning spectrometer able to probe minute intact samples, such as hair cells, he was able to create maps showing the spatial distribution and chemical properties of arsenic in the sample. The analysis showed that Phar Lap had ingested a large dose of arsenic in the last 30 to 40 hours of his life.

Prior to the opening of the Australian Synchrotron in Clayton, Victoria in 2007, Dr Ivan Kempson and fellow scientists had to apply to a funding body, the Australian Synchrotron Research Program (ASRP) to visit OS synchrotrons to perform these specialist investigations. Ivan undertook this research at the Advanced Photon Source, a third generation light source in Chicago. Now that the Australian Synchrotron, also a third generation light source, is opened for business, the ASRP will cease operation at the end of June 2008 and the Australian Synchrotron will take over this function by funding many scientists from across Australian and NZ to take up the opportunity to use a synchrotron light source closer to home. This will open up access to all research communities and underpin Australian innovation by allowing greater flexibility and variability in research projects and avoid the long flights overseas, reduce the limits on sample types due to fixation methods; and delays negotiating the import, export & quarantine laws governing biological materials leaving & re-entering Australia and overseas countries.

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