New technology examines old Jack London mysteries
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.