Originally posted on July 6, 2010.
If you picked up The Poisoner’s Handbook (amazon.com) looking for a fool-proof recipe, I hope you have read the book through and realized at the end that such a thing does not exist: you’ll get busted. If they could figure it all out back in 1930s, can you imagine how much easier they can figure out a case of poisoning today, with modern sensitive techniques? And if you have read the book through, I hope you found it as fascinating as I did. Perhaps you should use your fascination with poisons to do good instead, perhaps become a forensic toxicologist?
Deborah Blum (blog, Twitter) has done it again – written a fast-paced page-turner, full of action and intrigue, and with TONS of science in it. It reads like a detective novel. Oh, wait, it is a detective novel. Who said that an author has to invent a fictional detective, an Arsene Lupin or Hercule Poirot or Sherlock Holmes or the Three Investigators? There existed in history real people just like them, including Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, the heroes of The Poisoner’s Handbook.
Charles Norris was the first Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York, or at least the first one who was actually qualified for that position which, before him, was a political appointment not requiring any expertise. Norris served in this role from 1918. to 1935. and revolutionized both the position and the science of forensic medicine. Alexander Gettler was one of his first appointees, who served as New York City’s chief toxicologist until 1959.
The two of them used their prominent position to set the new high standards for the profession of a public medical examiner, and also set the new high standards for the scientific research in forensic pathology, including forensic toxicology – the study of the way poisons kill and how to detect it. They affected rules and legislation with their work, they sent clever murderers to the electric chair, and exonerated the innocents who were headed that way due to mistakes of the non-science-based courtroom battles. And in order to do that, they needed to do a lot of their own research during many years of long days and nights in the lab performing meticulous and often gruesome studies of the effects of various substances on animals, people, living and dead tissues and coming up with ever more sensitive and clever methods for detecting as small quantities of the poison as was technically possible at the time.
In the author’s note at the end of the book, Deborah Blum notes that there were many other forensic scientists before, during and after the Norris-Gettner era, and many of them got mentioned in the book or are cited in the EndNotes (which I discovered only once I finished the book – I hate the way publishers do this these days!). But it is also true that Norris and Gettner were the leaders – they used their prominent position and political clout, and their meticulous research defined the high standards for the nascent discipline. In a way, the central importance and prominence of these two men worked well for the book – here we have two interesting characters to like and follow instead of a whole plethora of unfleshed names. And as each chapter focuses on one poisonous substance and one or two notorious cases of its use, it is just like following Holmes and Watson through a series of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories – the two characters are the connecting thread, and they evolve throughout their lives and throughout the book, case by case.
Apart from being a history of forensic toxicology, the book has several other themes that keep recurring in each chapter, as they chronologically unfold. The book is also a history of 1920/30s New York City, and a history of technology and engineering. Carbon monoxide poisoning? That was the beginning of the car craze. Gas? Everyone cooked and heated with it at the time. Some other poisons were easily found in many over-the-counter products in stores and pharmacies.
Having just read On The Grid, I was also attuned to the discussions of infrastructure of NYC in the early 20th century. How did people transport themselves? Air pollution? Gas? Clean water? Wastewater? All sources of potentially toxic chemicals. How efficient was garbage collection? Not much….thus there were many rats. And rats needed to be controlled. And for that, there was plenty of rat poison to be bought. And rat poison can kill a human as well – inadvertently, as a method for suicide, or as a murder weapon. It is kinda fun to see some of the same infrastructure issues, like garbage disposal and pest extermination in N.Y.City, addressed from different angles in different books – this one, On The Grid, as well as Rats, another fascinating science book that covers New York City engineering, infrastructure and politics of the time. All the threads tie in together….
Another topic addressed in each chapter was Prohibition. One can certainly die of a huge overdose of ethyl alcohol normally found in drinks, but at the time when producing and selling drinks was illegal, people still drank, perhaps even more. And what did they drink? Whatever they could find on the black market – home-made concoctions brewed by unsavory types more interested in profit than the safety of their product. Instead of ethyl, those drinks were mostly made of methyl (wood) alcohol which is much more dangerous in much smaller doses. Prohibition saw a large increase in drinking-related deaths, a fact often loudly pronounced by Norris, leading to the eventual end of Prohibition. Can we apply that thinking to the War On Drugs now?
And the story of Prohibition has another element to it – the importance of regulation. An unregulated substance is potentially dangerous. By solving a number of poisoning cases, and by doing their research on the toxicity of then easily available substances, Norris and Gettner have managed to initiate regulation of a number of toxins, or even their removal from the market altogether. Some substances that were found in everything, even touted as health potions (even radioactive substances!!!) were discovered by forensic toxicologists to be deadly, and were subsequently banned or rigorously controlled. Today we have entire federal agencies dealing with regulation of dangerous chemicals, but in the early 20th century, it was the time of laissez-faire murder, suicide, suffering and death.
Finally, after I finished this fascinating book, I realized it gave me something more: an anchor, or a scaffolding, or a context, for every story about poisons I see now. Now every blog post on Deborah’s blog makes more sense – I can fit it into a body of knowledge and understanding I would not have if I have not read the book. This really goes hand in hand with the recent discussions of #futureofcontext in journalism – see The Future Of Context for starters. The idea is that news stories do not provide enough context for readers who tune into a new topic for the first time. A story that is an update on an ongoing story is not comprehensible without some context, which the news story cannot provide. So now various media organizations are experimenting with ways to provide context for people who are just tuning in. The perfect source of context for a topic is a book, especially now that every book appears to have its own website with links and news and a blog and a Twitter feed and a Facebook page. The book provides context, and all these other things provide updates.
For example, reading Bonobo Handshake may not provide much more context for me about animal behavior and cognition since I already have that context, but it certainly now makes it easier for me to understand the news stories regarding conservation of great apes. And without that book I would never have sufficient background in the recent history of Congo to understand and appreciate this comment thread. ‘On The Grid’ gives me context for all news regarding infrastructure. Explaining Research is a great recent example of a book that is a great start on the topic, but which constantly reminds the reader that this field is in flux and that the book’s website contains frequent updates and additional resources. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks provides fantastic context for the discussions of medical ethics and its evolution in the USA in the past several decades, which I riffed off a little bit in my latest interview.
What reading The Poisoner’s Handbook did for me is to give me enough knowledge and understanding on the topic that I can really appreciate it. I now get excited about news stories regarding poisons because I feel I understand them better. While reading Deborah Blum’s blog was interesting before, now it is more than interesting – it is exciting and I can’t wait for a new post to show up. I did not know how much I did not know. Now that I do, I want to know more. I am hungry for more knowledge, and more news, and more stories about toxins and poisons and how various strange and not so strange substances affect our bodies – where they come from, how they get in, how they hijack or disrupt our normal biochemical processes, how they kill us, and how do we figure that all out in the laboratory or in the basement of the mortuary. I hope you will feel the same once you finish reading this book. You will do that now, OK?