It's a question that has nagged Jon Krakauer and readers for some 20 years: What truly killed Christopher McCandless? McCandless, you'll recall, is the 24-year-old who perished in the Alaskan wilderness in 1992, and the subject of Krakauer's Into the Wild. The coroner listed cause of death as starvation; in his book, the author theorizes that Hedysarum alpinum, or wild potato plant, seeds contained a toxic alkaloid that ultimately did him in. Except those seeds have long been held as nontoxic, and "my conjecture was met with no small amount of derision," writes Krakauer in the New Yorker. But now Krakauer says he's figured it out—with the help of a Indiana University of Pennsylvania bookbinder. Ronald Hamilton posted an essay online a few months ago that asserts Hedysarum alpinum is indeed toxic, but due to an amino acid, not an alkaloid. How he came to this conclusion is fascinating.
Hamilton had previously read about a WWII concentration camp called Vapniarca, where hundreds of male prisoners were paralyzed after being fed toxic seeds. Their disease, lathyrism, was spurred by a compound known as ODAP, which, Hamilton wrote, strikes in a peculiar manner: It particularly ravages men between the ages of 15 and 25 who are eating very little, lacking key trace elements, and performing heavy physical activity. Convinced that there was a link, Hamilton got a chemist at his university to test Hedysarum alpinum seeds for ODAP; it "appeared to be" present, but more sophisticated testing was needed. So Krakauer last month had further analysis done, and "a concentration well within the levels known to cause lathyrism in humans" was identified. He asserts that had McCandless' guidebook alerted him to this neurotoxin, "he probably would have walked out of the wild in late August with no more difficulty than when he walked into the wild in April." The full story is absolutely worth a read. (The bus where McCandless died continues to be a spot of fascination—and danger—for some.)