There’s a book by Jon Krakauer (and now a movie) titled, “Into the Wild”. It’s about Chris McCandless, a 24 year-old man who went off the grid and into the wilds of Alaska:
In April 1992 a young man from a well-to-do family hitchhiked to Alaska and walked alone into the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley. His name was Christopher Johnson McCandless. He had given $25,000 in savings to charity, abandoned his car and most of his possessions, burned all the cash in his wallet, and invented a new life for himself. Four months later, his decomposed body was found by a moose hunter.
It had never been established exactly why Mr. McCandless died. There is an entry in his journal that reads, “EXTREMELY WEAK. FAULT OF POT[ATO] SEED. MUCH TROUBLE JUST TO STAND UP. STARVING. GREAT JEOPARDY.” (Emphasis added). If a toxic exposure was indeed his problem, was he simply eating a plant that he should not have? This seemed unlikely because Mr. McCandless was reportedly a very knowledgeable survivalist.
A writer and former university professor named R. C. Hamilton may have solved the mystery. He recognized from the description of Mr. McCandless’s illness a similarity to the plight of the captives in an obscure Nazi concentration camp in Romania called Vapniarca. The captives were intentionally fed “pea fodder”, Lathurus sativus, and many developed lathyrism. Lathyrism causes myelopathy. It is thought to be due to excitotoxicity of beta-N-oxalyl-L-alpha-beta-diaminoproprionic acid (called ODAP) at AMPA receptors. Mr. Hamilton enlisted the help of some scientists to determine that the potato seeds Mr. McCandless was eating indeed contained ODAP.
The paper above is fascinating for the detective work described, the brief history of lathyrism (which goes back thousands of years) and especially for the story of an official at Vapniarca who was sympathetic to the plight of the captives there and who, at the behest of a Jewish doctor who diagnosed lathyrism in his co-captives, was able to end the practice of feeding them pea fodder.
Another interesting read about all of this, and where I found the link to Hamilton’s paper, is a New Yorker piece by Jon Krakauer, the author of “Into the Wild”, who goes into more detail about his own attempts to solve this mystery and credits Hamilton with finally solving it.
Now, I haven’t read “Into the Wild” and certainly can’t verify the scientific validity of Mr. Hamilton’s and Mr. Krakauer’s findings (actually, the findings of the scientists they asked to investigate the issue). I don’t know whether Mr. McCandless’s body was autopsied or whether spinal cord sections were included that might corroborate the presence of a toxic myelopathy. But with all of those caveats, the linked articles are some very interesting reads!