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US Medical Experts Review Simon Bolivar's Cause of Death

Simon Bolivar, born in 1783 in Caracas, Venezuela, to sixth-generation Spanish Americans. Nicknamed 'The Liberator' , he lead troops to victory in 100 battles.

A group of doctors in the United States is questioning how one of South America's most celebrated men died. South American liberator Simon Bolivar was thought to have died in 1830 of tuberculosis.

He was born in 1783 in Caracas, Venezuela, to sixth-generation Spanish Americans. Even on the streets of North America, there is little question of what he became.

Simon Bolivar lead troops to victory in 100 battles. His nickname is "The Liberator" for freeing six South American countries from Spanish rule. His sword is presented to heads of state, as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez did in April to Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

But some think Simon Bolivar's death was never fully explained. His parents died of tuberculosis. So when Bolivar developed a chronic cough, fever and weight loss, the same bacterial infection was suspected. He weighed barely 22 kilograms when he passed. Tuberculosis was listed as the cause of death.

But now, almost two centuries later, modern medicine is discovering a new possibility. This group of doctors meets annually to challenge medical autopsies of famous historical figures. In the past, the doctors studied Florence Nightingale. Joan of Arc. Claudius. First they hear the facts.

Then they hear the patient's condition. Dr. Paul Auwaerter is the director of infectious diseases at the prestigious Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. "He had terrible headaches, the skin darkening, the weight loss, the weakness, the gastrointestinal complaints, the arthritis," he explained.

Dr. Auwaerter says that range of symptoms is not typical of tuberculosis. So, for the past year, he reviewed something no historian ever had: Bolivar's medical records dating back 10 years before his death in 1830. He investigated a variety of other causes. And came to his own conclusion.

Yes, arsenic. But not poisioning by political enemies, as in an assassination. Instead, Dr. Auwaerter says Bolivar slowly poisoned himself, unintentionally. "Political leaders of their day may have had VIP (Very Important Person) medicine. The best treatment available was arsenic, so that was what people reached for when they had unexplained health problems," Dr. Auwaerter said.

Arsenic was their aspirin, their common painkiller.

Also, Bolivar traveled and battled extensively, in Peru and other mountainous areas where arsenic is a common mineral found in ground water. Dr. Auwater thinks he consumed it too, simply by drinking the water.

Dr. John Dove is a retired spinal surgeon and a Bolivar scholar. He says if doctors then had treated the poisoning, Bolivar might have lived longer.

"If he'd been able to come back and to gather around him some powerful, like-thinking nation builders, they might have been able to create his ideal of having one Spanish speaking South American country, rather then they all being split up and warring among themselves," Dr. Dove said. "It would have been a different world."

Medical professionals, using modern eyes to peer back into history, viewing Simon Bolivar as if he were their patient today.

And seeking to change the final line on the life story of El Liberator.