THE MYSTERIOUS DOWNFALL OF 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.
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.
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.
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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