The Poisoner’s Handbook

I am taking the second segment of the Toxicology courses available at my university because I really enjoyed doing the Tox I concepts, term project, and the flexibility of having an online class in my schedule.

Last term I read “Slow Death by Rubber Duck” by Deborah Blum, which talked about the potential negative impact of constantly being surrounded by chemicals in our daily lives. This term I am reading “Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.”  I am from New York, and I had taken forensics courses both in high school in college, so I immediately knew this book was going to be interesting to me. So far I have only ready the first few chapters, but I am really liking the blend of science and history.


Figure: Cover of “The Poisoner’s Handbook” by Deborah Blum

The book emphasizes how forensics and toxicology develop as scientific fields as a product of trying to detect evidence against murderers. There were few tools to detect toxic substances in corpses until the 1900, making chemical an easy killing method. Also, in the 1800s, the chemical revolution made it accessible to get such poisons. I think that this relationship between murderers and scientific detectives is what drives new and innovative methods of killing to arise. For example, when the detection of metal chemicals was possible, murders stop using things like arsenic and turned to find untraceable chemicals like from plant sources.

In terms of style, “Poisoner’s Handbook” contrasts with “Rubber Duck” in that it is told as a story in a certain time setting. “Poisoner’s Handbook” is divided into chapters based on a specific chemical and the year of the case or cases it will cover.  “Rubber Duck” is a more humorous account of experiments and facts. What they both have in common is that they show that the culture and society play a large role in how chemical issues are resolved.

Here is a good review of “Poisoner’s Handbook,” where I learned that the book actually had a trailer (seen below in the YouTube vid)


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