New technology examines old Jack London mysteries

Researchers took a closer look at the objects the famous author touched and owned, like a vial of medicine, to find clues about his use of drugs.|

On a spring day in 2021, Richard Rocco showed up at the historic Sonoma Barracks with plastic vials, latex gloves, sterilized scissors and a collection of tiny chemically prepared discs cut from plastic sheets sent from Israel. There, in a windowless, climate-controlled room on the second floor, the pharmacology professor meticulously spent almost an entire day employing a new technology that might shed light on old rumors that have swirled around Sonoma County’s favorite son, Jack London, for more than a century.

Did the world-famous writer of such classics as “White Fang” and “The Call of the Wild” abuse drugs? What was he taking in the years leading up to his death at the age of 40 in 1916? Could he have died of a drug overdose or even taken his own life?

Serious historians have long debunked these rumors about his death, concluding he died in his Glen Ellen cottage of uremia caused by kidney failure after years of illness.

Collaborating with chemical scientists in Milan and Israel, Rocco suspected that proteins from sweat or saliva left on objects London touched in his later years might settle the long-simmering speculation through hard science.

He selected a handful of London’s medically related artifacts stored in the state archives preserved in Sonoma. And he set to work, employing methods from an emerging area of forensic research that has the potential to unlock an untold number of biological mysteries of the past.

Rocco chose for biochemical analysis a leather Abercrombie & Fitch standard medical case made in about 1911, with a large flap and snaps. Inside the bag were a glass vial of opium tablets, an article torn from a 1911 issue of The American Journal of Clinical Medicine and a 1906 booklet on rattlesnake bites.

Also picked for testing were items found in museum boxes labeled as having come from the London estate. They included a Taylor thermometer and case dated 1906, a vial of chlorodyne (a mixture of morphine in chloroform and ethanol) from 1908, a vial of Formamint lozenge tablets composed of formaldehyde and sucrose from about 1914 and a Wyeth vial of opium tablets dated Nov. 22, 1915.

From these he collected samples using EVA technology. The relatively new process entails using tweezers to meticulously place, on the surface of an object, tiny diskettes of ethylene vinyl acetate (EVA) impregnated with strong anion and cation exchangers (to separate out molecules) and mixed with hydrophobic resins. Within about 30 to 60 minutes, the film may harvest from an object proteins, DNA and metabolites, substances made when the body breaks down food, drugs, chemicals or its own tissue.

These materials may contain a wealth of information about a person who touched that object, no matter how much time has passed.

New technology unearthing historical secrets

The EVA technology was developed by Israeli scientists Gleb and Svetlana Zilberstein. Working with chemical researcher Pier Giorgio Righetti of Milan, they have used the technology to mine new information about the pathologies of historical figures, including Josef Stalin, Anton Chekhov, the Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov and George Orwell.

Their conclusion about Jack London? From the biological material he left behind on his objects, they found traces of 12 drugs but determined he was taking reasonable doses of what would be considered common, over-the-counter medications available in the early 1900s.

No smoking guns were found to fuel the salacious rumors about London’s alleged drug abuse that began after his death and spread widely through writer Irving Stone and his now widely discredited biography of London, “Sailor on Horseback,” published in 1938.

One of the bits of supposed evidence feeding speculation was a vial labeled “Terpin Hydrate and Heroin” that has been on display with other artifacts at the House of Happy Walls in Jack London State Historic Park.

But Rocco said terpin hydrate heroin was an over-the-counter pill or liquid routinely used at the time for colds, flus and coughs. Terpin was an expectorant.

“The heroin is a trademarked name to this day for methyl morphine. And it is a cough suppressant, as it is to this day,” Rocco said. “But here is what we found interesting: On all of the objects we tested, terpin hydrate was only found when heroin was found. Always in combination.

“That indicated to us that the source of the heroin on the objects we tested was in fact the over-the-counter cough suppressant, which at the time was terpin hydrate heroin.”

In 1924 heroin became illegal and was replaced with codeine as a pain medication. Terpin hydrate was later replaced with a safer expectorant called Guaifenesin. So what London was using at the time, according to Rocco, was the equivalent of today’s Robitussin AC.

“If Jack London had been using heroin and injecting it, or if he had been using morphine and injecting it,” the pharmacologist said, “we found no good evidence.”

It is known, through his wife Charmian and his own writings, that London had reason to use an expectorant: He occasionally had the flu and bronchitis and was a smoker. “At one time, he had himself checked in for TB because he thought he might have it because he had a chronic cough,” Rocco said.

Discoveries about Stalin, Chekhov

Nonetheless, other writers kept the rumors alive.

Back in 1977, Andrew Sinclair wrote in “Jack: a Biography,” “The medicine chest still on display at the Jack London Museum near Glen Ellen contains ... heroin, morphine and opium among other analgesics. ... In other words, he was taking the fatal ‘uppers and downers’ of modern pill pushers.”

And the writer E. L Doctorow, in a 1988 collection of essays, referred to London’s “death at forty, of uremia, or stroke, or accidental overdose of his painkiller of preference, heroin, or perhaps all of these.”

That museum display also piqued Rocco’s interest. He has long been drawn to the history of medicine. A resident of Oakland who teaches at Samuel Merritt University there, he also became interested in London, who, when not globe-trotting, spent his early years in Oakland and his last years in Glen Ellen.

While the findings were not explosive, they are important in “setting the record straight” about London and his alleged drug abuse, Righetti said in a Zoom interview from Milan.

“That is our aim. Sometimes historians do not know, so they say, ‘Oh, this guy died from an overdose,’” Righetti said. “But via our technologies, by investigating original manuscripts or even the garments people were wearing, we can set the record straight. Yes, this guy took cocaine or he took pain relief via morphine. Where historians do not know — they guess or even they invent — our data are absolutely clear-cut.”

Rocco had met Righetti at a conference years earlier and the two stayed in touch. And after reading a story in the New Yorker magazine about the scientific discoveries Righetti and the Zilbersteins were making through EVA, he reached out to see if the Italian scientist and his team might be interested in analyzing Jack London objects.

“It is hoped that the present methodology could open the doors of museums, state archives and private collections for detecting biological traces left by artists, literates and men of culture in their masterpieces,” the trio said in a paper published in The Journal of Proteome Research.

An enthusiastic Righetti declared, “There is all kinds of information opened up by this research. For instance, nobody knew until a few months ago that Stalin had the same kind of depression as Winston Churchill.”

He and the Zilbersteins examined the margins of pages from a book about Ivan the Terrible that Stalin had read. From traces of saliva Stalin left on the pages — many people wet a finger with their tongue to turn a page — they picked up biological evidence that the Russian dictator had been taking lithium salts, a common treatment for bipolar disorder, which causes extreme mood swings.

“All the world was surprised, because nobody knew. Historians did not know,” Righetti said. While Churchill was open about the depression he called “The Black Dog,” Stalin kept his mental illness a secret. A physician at the time who dared to suggest Stalin’s illness died suddenly a day later.

Gleb Zilberstein examined a shirt worn by Chekhov the day he died and confirmed what had only been assumed through speculation — that the writer died of tuberculosis. They also recovered morphine from a manuscript touched by famous Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov.

The ability to use the charged plastic to remove proteins or almost any chemical from an artifact without destroying it offers intriguing possibilities for historical discovery.

Zilberstein claimed he did uncover evidence of something previously unknown about Jack London: that he was diabetic, although Zilberstein couldn’t tell if London had the often-deadly type A diabetes or type B, a condition that might have contributed to his kidney failure.

Rocco is skeptical that the writer, who suffered from chronic illnesses that he picked up in his foreign travels, could have had diabetes and no doctor diagnosed it at the time.

Lou Leal, the volunteer historian at Jack London State Historic Park, believes London died of kidney failure triggered by mercury poisoning from a paste he made to treat open sores caused by Yaws, a relative of syphilis that the writer contracted in the Solomon Islands.

Questions remain

The researchers acknowledge that their findings from this first round of testing don’t tell the complete story. They only add to it.

It was determined that the objects they examined were in use only up to 1915, a year before London’s death. So they don’t show definitively what London was taking and how much he took right before he died. But they do indicate that he wasn’t abusing illicit drugs, such as injecting heroin or opium, at least up to a year before his death.

“In the few days before he died, if he had taken massive amounts of drugs, we don’t know,” Righetti said. “We analyzed what was in a medicine case he had used years before. So nobody knows. But we have found that in his medicine case, he had just over-the-counter drugs he could get in any pharmacy or via prescription.”

Rocco said the research, published in a paper by the Institute of France Academy of Sciences, has one groundbreaking aspect. It was the first time EVA was used to examine artifacts in the United States.

In light of the importance of the subject and the technology, Rocco said he felt a responsibility “to get it right.

“Whatever we found, it better be truthful and proven,” he said. “We’re dealing with an important American writer and his history. I didn’t want to distort it or make a mistake. ... The analysis was performed free of charge as a favor to me and to Righetti, with the hope that we are making a contribution for the first time to something from America.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or OnTwitter @megmcconahey.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.


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