Poison, forensic medicine, and facts

Posted on April 1, 2011 by Tommy McGuire
Labels: books
I like The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. Really, I do.Deborah Blum writes well, the story is fascinating, the history is both vital as well as, well, timely. But it could have been so much better.

I don't really mind Blum's bizarre dual organization: the book's chapters are named after, and focus on, specific poisons like chloroform, wood alcohol, cyanides, and so on, but the text is also chronological, from 1915 in chapter one, 1918 and 1919 for chapter two, 1920 through 1922 for chapter three, and so on. I mean, it follows the career of New York's first medical examiner and his forensic chemist, Alexander Gettler. Through a career, it's obvious that some issues, like some poisons, will be more important at specific times. Likewise, some poisons, like some issues, will continue to rear their heads through the years although perhaps in different guises.

[My coroner story: I am from Texas. My required undergraduate Texas government class was enlivened by stories like the Justice of the Peace who, acting as coroner, declared a death involving something like 27 bullet wounds to be a suicide.]

I also don't really mind when Blum's writing style ventures far beyond the pale; comparing the color of a body poisoned by carbon monoxide with the hourglass on a black widow may impress some of the reviewers I have read, but it is just too much of a stretch for me.

What I do mind is a lack of trust. History is vital because, to paraphrase Marx and Santayana, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to be characters in a bad comedy. Blum's tale has many lessons, from prohibition to overconfidence. (Did anyone notice the similarities between Marie Curie and Thomas Midgley, Jr., the GM engineer who introduced tetraethyl lead to gasoline, washed his hands in the stuff for the press, and who was last seen vacationing in Europe and seeking treatment for lead poisoning?)

But details matter. This story is about science; wrong is wrong. When Blum explains that "gamma radiation [...] contains a dangerous mixture of X-rays and other subatomic materials" (pg. 184), or that "beverages containing ethyl alcohol were known as 'hard liquor'" (pg. 197), I am left wondering if her other assertions, such as "one of the benefits, or curses, of [...] Prohibition: every drink was a stiff one" (pg. 200) are similarly fuzzy. One might imagine that a PLoS blogger would know the importance of checking facts.

So I am left with one conclusion: although The Poisoner's Handbook is a good read, it is a failure as anything more.

[Ps. More about Midgley. According to Wikipedia, he was also involved in the synthesis of chlorofluorocarbon refrigerants, the production of "[...] which is being phased out by the Montreal Protocol because they contribute to ozone depletion". Also, he died of strangulation after becoming entangled in a "a self-devised harness for getting in & out of bed" after being disabled by polio.]
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