toxicology in history


The elements of murder. A history of poison, John Emsley (2006) (and listen to an interview with the author here)


A delightful potion of chemical erudition, forgotten science history and ghastly murder schemes.... Reading The Elements of Murder is like watching a hundred episodes of CSI, but without having to sit through the tedious personal relationships of the characters.... Along the way the bodies pile up as Emsley relates spectacular case histories of poisonings, accidental and criminal.... Emsley mines what he calls 'the darker side of the periodic table' with consumate skill.

Dick Teresi, The New York Times Book Review


Molecules of murder: criminal molecules and classic murders, John Emsley (2008)


John Emsley has crafted this clever book about murder by poisoning with the intention of serving two audiences – those fascinated by crime and by science. He deals with each poison with a detailed description of its properties, and as such it sometimes reads like a chemistry textbook. However, this heaviness of scientific description is alleviated by the detail about the precise use of the poisons in real life.

Emsley says there are, thankfully, few poisons available to the assassins and murderers of the 21st century that are not fully understood. So perhaps the days of murder by poisoning are coming to a close.

Steve Conner, The Independent (read the full review here)



The Poisoner's Handbook, Blum D (2010)

Blum's extraordinary narrative alchemy fuses Gettler and Norris's painstaking, laborious undertakings with the birth of safety measures (the Food and Drug Administration wasn't much of one until the 1930s), the scandal surrounding workers' exposure to radium, and many other measures that bring home how volatile the transformation from prosperity to struggle really was. A few things get lost, like what debt both Norris and Gettler owed to colleagues in other cities and countries (Blum, to her credit, makes a note of this in supplementary material) or what clashes they had with law enforcement (though the ones with government are well-documented.) But these flaws don't diminish The Poisoner's Handbook's glorious depictions of the "coming-of-age party for forensic toxicology." The book is an unexpected yet appropriate open-sesame into a world that was planting seeds for the world -- with lethal toxins and cutting-edge tools -- that would later, darkly bloom.

Weinman S (2010) The Criminalist - Barnes and Noble Review

See also ..

forensic toxicology in history - selected references


arsenic in history - the Marsh test


The Marsh test equipment


Dr. Alfred Swaine Taylor (left) and a colleague, performing the Marsh test on samples taken from the body of John Parsons Cook.

The two were looking for traces of arsenic and antimony (1856). National Library of Medicine


Arsenic flametest (Wikimedia)

Trial of Madeleine Smith

Trial of the Seddons

Trial of William Palmer

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