ScienceThrillers.com review of The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum
New PBS production of The Poisoner’s Handbook for the American Experience series premiered on January 7, 2014. Check your local PBS station for time.
Publication date: 2011
Category: popular science, science history, American history (nonfiction)
Tech rating (out of 5):
Summary (from PBS):
In the early 20th century, the average American medicine cabinet was a would-be poisoner’s treasure chest, with radioactive radium, thallium, and morphine in everyday products. The pace of industrial innovation increased, but the scientific knowledge to detect and prevent crimes committed with these materials lagged behind until 1918. New York City’s first scientifically trained medical examiner, Charles Norris, and his chief toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, turned forensic chemistry into a formidable science and set the standards for the rest of the country.
Contrary to what a deviant reader might wish, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum is not a how-to book. It is, however, an eye-popping work of science and history that weaves together the origins of modern forensic medicine with unforgettable stories of real people in 1920s-1930s New York City. The Poisoner’s Handbook is structured around the careers of two remarkable men of science at Bellevue Hospital–Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler–who wrested power from the corrupt, unscientific coroner’s office to create the modern medical examiner system. The scientific study of cause of death using bodies as evidence that we take for granted today in real life and popular entertainment was invented in the Jazz Age.
And what a time of macabre plenty that was for medical examiners. I am stunned by the stories of death. Today, when many Americans are careful to the point of paranoia about what substances they will put in their bodies, or how much risk is acceptable in an activity, it’s hard to believe that less than a century ago people routinely died horrifically from poisons. To murder using poison was easy; fatal doses of a variety of toxins were widely available in commercial products. Accidental deaths were astonishingly common: cyanide deaths from routine fumigation of the neighbor’s apartment; chloroform deaths from casual use of anesthetic; mercury from accidental ingestion of a topical drug; carbon monoxide from unlit gas lamps; plus an obscene number of cases of blindness and death among people who drank illegal spirits during Prohibition. Bootleg “gins” made from “denatured” grain alcohol were tainted with toxic wood alcohol and other poisons added at the behest of the U.S. Government. Breaking the law of the 18th Amendment became, in effect, a crime punishable by death.
The most striking tales in this book are from industrial workplaces in what seems like a distant past. In 1924 Standard Oil started producing leaded gasoline to minimize engine “knock”. In the first year of production, three-quarters of the workers at the lead plant were hospitalized or dead. At the Radium Corporation, vibrant young women painted the dials of wristwatches with radium-containing luminous paint, sharpening their brushes with their lips. The women became glowing, radioactive beacons themselves and died horribly. (At the time, radium was widely touted as a miracle cure. It was added to tonics and lotions, and uranium was purposefully dumped into therapeutic hot springs to generate radon gas.)
I greatly enjoyed reading this book because the content is so interesting. Author Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer Prizewinner and professor of science journalism, so the writing is quite good. Blum is not a scientist, however, and she occasionally gets small tech details wrong. For example, she ascribes the suffocating action of cyanide to its binding of hemoglobin. In fact, cyanide doesn’t disrupt oxygen transport, but rather poisons oxygen utilization by knocking out cytochromes in the mitochondria.
My only real complaint is the book’s awkward structure. Chapters are named after individual poisons, yet the actual narrative is loosely chronological. Although Norris and Gettler’s work is the thread that ties the whole book together, The Poisoner’s Handbook is more a collection of anecdotes than a single narrative.
But with anecdotes like these, I’m happy to recommend this work of popular nonfiction.
If you like The Poisoner’s Handbook, you might like:
Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach; The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic–and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson
PBS production of The Poisoner’s Handbook for American Experience series premieres on January 7, 2014. Click the link for a bunch of related resources.