Synchrotron Science Reveals Phar Lap Mystery

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19th June 2008, 11:01am - Views: 740

Science Science Australian Synchrotron 1 image

19 June 2008


STRICTLY EMBARGOED until 9am, Thursday 19 June, 2008.

Synchrotron science reveals Phar Lap mystery.

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.

For further media information on the Australian Synchrotron please contact:

Jennifer Cook, Group Leader Media, Marketing & Communications on 03 8540 4194, 0400108239 or

jennifer.cook or; 

Steve Gower, Head External Relations, on 03 85404109 or 0425 275 159 or

For Further information from Melbourne Museum  please contact:

Jessica Bendell on 03 8341 7726, 0439 341 007 or

For further information from the University of South Australia, please contact:

Michele Nardelli on 08 830 26611 or 


Phar Lap Forensic Investigation Media Conference

Melbourne Museum, Nicholson Street Carlton

9.00 am, Thursday 19 June 2008


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