Monday, July 26, 2010

The Poisoner's Handbook

Checked out a book called The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by science journalist Deborah Blum (Penguin Press, 2010).  My wife did give me an odd look when she saw it in the pile of books I was checking out of the library.  When I saw the book in the library, I remembered that someone, somewhere had given it a good review (another science blog, likely).

The subtitle Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York does give a better idea of what the book is about.  Blum discusses a number of chemicals which have poisoned people (intentionally and unintentionally) in New York City during the Jazz Age - the period of time between the end of World War I and the beginning of the Great Depression (primarily the 1920's).

The chemical poisons she covers in detail include chloroform (CHCl3), methyl alcohol (CH3OH), cyanides (HCN, KCN, NaCN), arsenic (As), mercury (Hg), carbon monoxide (CO), radium (Ra), ethyl alcohol (C2H5OH), and thallium (Tl).  Blum discusses famous poisoning cases detailing exactly how these poisons work and how forensic medicine developed as a science because of these crimes.

A biography of three early pioneers in forensic medicine is interwoven through the book as well - NY City medical examiner Charles Norris, his chemist associate Alexander Gettler, and NJ medical examiner Harrison Martland - and their constant battles for adequate funding and respect from the political powers of the era.  These men turned the medical examiner's office from a position filled by political hacks to well-respected, scientific institution.  The book is a bit gruesome at times, as Blum details how the medical examiners experimented on tissues extracted from dead bodies to work out  how to detect poisons in various tissues.  I wouldn't read it if vivid descriptions of how people die from arsenic, autopsies, and criminals frying in Sing Sing's 'old sparky' would disturb you.

There are a few errors in the book. 

She describes formic acid as the "essential part of the venom in bee stings" (pg 162).  This is an old idea about bee venom that's not true - only trace amounts are present and they're not an essential component (see O'Connor & Peck. 1980. Bee sting: The chemistry of an insect venom. Journal of Chemical Education 57(3):206).  The acid's name actually comes from the Latin word for ant, formica, and is present in ant stings.

On page 161, she writes "In 1923 German chemists had figured out how to make a synthetic methyl alcohol called methanol."  Methyl alcohol (although it wasn't called that at the time) was first isolated around 1661 by Robert Boyle (of Boyle's law fame) from the distillation of wood (hence the common name "wood alcohol").  In 1892, the International Conference on Chemical Nomenclature assigned the name methanol to methyl alcohol.  They're completely synonymous.

On page 73, she describes how Gettler "gave a dog 50 mg of cyanide (a little less than 2 ounces)." Um, 50 grams is a little less than 2 ounces, 50 mg is a little less than (2/1000) of an ounce.

Page 174 describes how "The executioner pulled the switch on the control panel, releasing a current of 2,000 volts through the wires..."  The units of current are amperes, not volts.

And this mess on page 184 after discussing the release of alpha particles by radium: "Radium also emits, to a lesser degree or positrons [sic], two other kinds of radiation: beta radiation, which consists of electrons, and gamma radiation, which contains a dangerous mixture of X-rays and other subatomic materials."  Gamma radiation is simply a form of electromagnetic radiation (with extremely short wavelengths), just like x-rays, UV, light, IR, and radio waves.

Page 178 states "European hot springs, famed for their healing powers, contained radon, a gas created by the interaction of radium and water."  No.  Radon-222 forms from the decay of radium-226 and is part of the decay chain of uranium-238 to lead-206.  See the full chain here.  It has nothing to do with water.

Errors like this are surprisingly common in many science books written by science journalists (most of whom were English or journalism majors in college and never had a lab science course).  I'm generalizing, of course, never having seen Blum's college transcripts, but the simple act of having an actual chemist read the book would have flagged those errors during the editorial process (why don't publishers do that - given what most of them are paid, many chemistry professors would happily accept a small check to proofread a book like this).

Anyway, I enjoyed reading the book and learned a few things.  I had always thought that deaths from drinking methyl alcohol (wood alcohol) during Prohibition were primarily those of desperate alcoholics who would drink anything.  Turns out, that much of the bootleg liquor at that time was highly poisonous and underground drinking was a game of Russian roulette.  Many middle-class New Yorkers poisoned themselves with bathtub gin and the medical examiners of the time actively lobbied for the repeal of Prohibition since they dealt daily with its consequences. 

The backstory on the development of forensic chemistry was interesting as well.  Modern CSI investigators owe a lot to their hardworking, underpaid, underappreciated forerunners whose curiosity and sense of justice moved them to do their wet chemistry experiments on the tissues of decomposing cadavers dragged in from the streets of New York.

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