The Poisoner’s Handbook

The Poisoner’s Handbook by science writer Deborah Blum is about the birth of forensic toxicology in United States in early 20th century against the backdrop of prohibition and depression era. This book is primarily about pioneering efforts of Charles Norris – first chief medical examiner of New York and Alexander Gettler; his chief toxicologist. Together these two scientists changed the face of toxicology in the laboratories and in the courtrooms. They established the field of toxicology, bringing it the reputation it deserved and using scientific evidence to bring the poisoner’s to justice.

The book starts with a prologue about the lack of sufficient tools or methods for detection of poisons in early 19th century. It then describes the major poisons, starting with simple chloroform in early 1900’s and ending with thallium in 1930’s. Each chapter in the book is dedicated to a poison and the book progresses in the chronological manner, indicating the various important stages in the scientific development.

I have always been fascinated by forensics. While in undergrad school for pharmaceutical sciences pharmacology and toxicology was one of my favorite subjects along with organic and general chemistry. There is something very earthy and basic about getting your hands dirty while working in the lab. This book talks about the time when there were no hi-tech scientific instruments like mass spectrometers and liquid chromatography systems. Alexander Gettler invented his own analytical and detection ‘wet chemistry’ methods using his instincts and solid chemistry knowledge. He worked and published papers on poisons like methyl alcohol, cyanide, carbon monoxide, chloroform, thallium, developed techniques to find the minimum lethal doses of these poisons, refined the then existing analytical techniques-all this while being underpaid civil worker. The book talks about Charles Norris’ persistent troubles with the then mayoral authorities of New York, his constant struggles for getting higher budgets for medical examiner’s office and his initial troubles in getting the judicial system to allow scientific evidence in the courts.

It is a very well written and well researched book. It reads like a medical thriller as the reader constantly thinks how is Gettler going to detect this new poison! It imparts the right knowledge without sounding pedantic or too technical, it gives all the details but with the ease that a layman will understand. I am grateful to Deborah Blum for writing this book, otherwise I would have never known about these amazing ordinary heroes who fought so hard in their labs to make this world a better place. Anybody with an interest in chemistry with or without the chemistry background should be able to read and enjoy this book.

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