73. The Botanists

IN OCTOBER LAST YEAR, George Phelps, Professor of Botany at the University of Johannesburg, died suddenly of a rare infection, previously only ever reported in the tropics. The coronial inquest was at a loss to explain the death. Five weeks later, in November last year, Dr Renee Harbinger -- a lecturer in botany at Duke University in South Carolina - died of the same rare condition. The two deaths were remarkably similar: within the space of a day or two their skin had dried, cracked and peeled off - leading to fatal infection. As in the Phelps case, the coroner was at a loss to explain the cause of death. Three weeks later, a third botanist, Dr Patricia Damasque, fell victim to the strange condition, this time in Berkeley California. At this point, a fourth botanist was able to propose a hypothetical cause of the deaths. Sixteen years previously, as a young post-graduate, Dr Michel Banqui had worked with all three of the unfortunate botanists on the Olympic Arum - a rare tropical flower found only in Madagascar. The botanists had witnessed the flowering of the gigantic flower, which only occurs once every 211 years and lasts three days, during which the flower stands some nine feet tall. Banqui recalled that the quartet had conducted experimental surgery on the plant in a failed attempt to propagate it artificially, and added that, even if he were to also fall victim to the flower's belated revenge, it would nevertheless be worth it. Banqui passed away the following day, although it is believed he took his own life.