The Perfect Poisoner

  Poison

 

THE MYSTERIOUS DOWNFALL  OF PROFESSOR CHAPMAN

Professor Henry George Chapman 1879 - 1934

Professor Chapman

It is 1918 and Sydney University’s  Professor of  Pharmacology  Henry Chapman has  set up  a unique test for his senior  students.  Their task is  to identify the deadly poison present in a  mixture he has prepared. He is amused and delighted when  even  the most brilliant members of his class fail.

Over the next few years  many more students would  take  and fail the test, but it is unlikely that  Professor Chapman   ever revealed the mystery element. Such were  the complications of  his life, that he no doubt thought it sensible to keep the information up his sleeve….just in case it became necessary to use the poison in a more practical manner.

  Professor Chapman’s Background

Henry  Chapman   was born in  the English town of Ealing in 1879. His family migrated to Australia  when he was about seventeen. He graduated from Melbourne University in 1899 with Honours  and became a research scholar in biology, researching toxins under  the direction  of the famous physiologist Sir Charles James Martin.  Dr Chapman  moved to Sydney University in 1903, conducting classes in pharmacology and physiological chemistry. In 1907 he was appointed honorary pathological chemist at Sydney’s Royal Prince Alfred Hospital. He was fascinated by biochemistry and plant products. His botanical knowledge led to him becoming the first graduate of an Australian university to be  president of the Linnean Society of NSW.

Sydney University

Sydney University.

 

 

 

Chapman’s career took a slightly different turn in 1928, when he was appointed Director of Cancer Research at Sydney University. He was also honorary treasurer of the Royal Society of New South Wales. He travelled widely, lecturing on all manner of medical and scientific subjects.

On May 25  1934, Professor Chapman suddenly collapsed  in his rooms in the Physics Building  at  the University.  He was rushed to hospital, but could not be  revived.  Initially it was assumed he had suffered a heart attack, or a stroke, but the attending  doctor  had some doubts  and refused to issue a death certificate.

The doctor’s concerns would soon prove to be  justified. It was revealed that  Chapman had stolen tens of thousands of pounds from the Royal Society  and the Australian  National  Research  Council. He had been under increasing  pressure to explain suspected discrepancies.  Just prior to his death an ultimatum was issued to him  by  the Royal Society’s accountant; he must produce evidence that  the Society’s bonds were untouched, or  face the  consequences. In an  effort to disguise  what was clearly a premeditated suicide, Chapman  had spoken to his son and others in the weeks before his death about health problems involving his heart.

Following the information about embezzlement there was a coronial inquiry.   A post-mortem was conducted, and the government analyst was called in to examine organs removed from Chapman’s body.  It was not really a surprise when traces of poison were found.  The amount did not seem sufficient to cause death, but  it was assumed Chapman  had  been clever enough to ensure the toxins would disseminate quickly.   A medical expert  was called as a witness by  the Chapman family’s lawyer, Mr Edward Loxton K.C. The expert  argued  that the Professor’s death could have resulted from heart failure.  Mr Loxton did his best  to influence the outcome of the inquiry  by commenting  that the slur  of  suicide would be difficult for his  family to cope with.

However, the Coroner found that  55 year  Henry George Chapman  died  from a cocktail of  poisons, willfully administered by himself.  It was later  concluded  that the mixture  he had ingested included morphine and  atropine, but also the rare South American arrow poison, curare.

Curare causes  asphyxiation due to paralysis of the diaphragm. I wonder if it was curare  that the Professor’s  pharmacology students had been unable to identify?

On July 18 1934 an auction of the dead man’s  household effects took place.  Of great interest to those who attended was an extensive library of scientific  text books, including many on poisons.

 

Poison dart blow pipe

Curare, the deadly poison used on blow-pipe darts.

Professor Chapman left behind a scandal of epic proportions, involving infidelity, deceit,  embezzlement, and gross dereliction of duty. Why this brilliant man went off the rails so spectacularly remains a mystery. One theory is that he was morally weak, and  that sudden access to large amounts of money  simply proved too tempting.

The other strange thing is that he died bankrupt.  In a will made just weeks before his suicide he stated that he held  £85,000 in  Commonwealth bonds  and large parcels of shares, but this was all a  Walter Mitty  style fabrication.  So what happened to the £30,000  he had stolen? He  did play the stock market, and since the world was in the midst of the Great Depression  the money may have been lost in  disastrous share trading. Another suggestion at the time was that he was being blackmailed over the embezzlement.

What a scoop the whole affair was for the newspapers.  The tabloid Truth’s sensationalized account covered several pages.

Newspaper photo of Professor Henry George Chapman

Coverage in the Truth newspaper included a photo of Professor Chapman at work.

FOOTNOTE – A MORE COMMON POISON, ESPECIALLY IN THE VICTORIAN ERA, WAS A LINAMENT CONTAINING ACONITE, BELLADONNA AND CHLORAFORM.  YOU CAN READ  MORE ABOUT IT HERE;  AS EASY AS ABC

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5 Comments
  1. Love your stories Paulie!

    • Pauline

      Thanks Josie, I love researching and writing them to be quite honest. x

  2. I love these snippets of history. This man certainly lived a life of mystery and deceipt. I’ll bet he didn’t think it would still stir interest 80 plus years later.

    • Pauline

      Thanks Christine, I’m writing his full story in a couple of articles. He lived here in Blackheath.

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