IUP Librarian Ron Hamilton helped crack the mystery of Chris McCandless’s death. McCandless was the subject of Jon Krakauer’s best-selling book Into the Wild, later made into an award-winning film directed by Sean Penn. Controversy surrounds the death, which some view as the result of arrogance and stupidity, others as the result of accidental poisoning.
In a recent New Yorker blog post, Krakauer returns to the controversy and argues that the case can now be closed.
In his book, Krakauer asserted that the young man’s death by starvation was the consequence of eating wild potato seeds, which poisoned him; however, the presence of that poison couldn’t be proved.
Hamilton saw another possibility. Based on his knowledge of a cruel starvation experiment carried out on Jewish prisoners in a Romanian concentration camp during World War II, he suspected that a different toxin was likely to blame.
Hamilton contacted Jonathan Southard, assistant chair of the IUP Chemistry Department, and convinced him to task a student, Wendy Gruber, to test the seeds for the suspected agent. Unfortunately, though it was likely present, Gruber didn’t have the equipment to provide conclusive evidence. Based on that evidence, Hamilton posted his paper “The Silent Fire: ODAP and the Death of Christopher McCandless” on a website dedicated to McCandless.
Krakauer discovered the paper and followed up with his own tests. Hamilton’s hypothesis was proven. McCandless died as a result of accidentally ingesting a neurotoxin in wild potato seeds, which drastically weakened him, making it impossible for him to gather food.
Krakauer’s blog post “How Chris McCandless Died”was posted on September 12 and can be accessed at the New Yorker online.
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