MedHum Monday Presents: A Little Drop of Poison

DailyDose_PosterTo those of you who follow my various twitter or visit the Dittrick Museum blog, twitter and instagram,  my preoccupation with toxicology will not come as a surprise. Over the past year, I have been researching the archive of John George Spenzer in advance of my next book project, and along the way I’ve discovered not only a fabulous and strange series of crimes–but also a unique relationship between medicine and forensics. In many ways, the field of forensic science owes its birth to practices of medicine… and on the other hand, many medicines really were but a “little drop of poison.”

Deborah Blum’s Poisoner’s Handbook reminds us that until the late 19-teens and twenties, coroners were elected officials rather than medical doctors. And yet, poisons can only be traced through a series of lab tests, themselves difficult to perform. Catching clever poisoners, however, requires clever specialists. In a post for the Dittrick, I wrote about some of those early practitioners, including James Marsh and Mathieu Orfila.

L0057809 Blue ridged glass bottle for arsenic, Europe, 1701-1935In 1836, James Marsh would develop a test that could determine if arsenic was present. He had been called in to the Bodle Case, where a whole family became ill from tainted coffee (though only the elderly George Bodle died). His grandson John Bodle was brought to trial for murder, but Marsh was unable to convince the jury and set about inventing a new and better test. He constructed a simple glass apparatus capable of detecting minute traces of arsenic and measuring its quantity.  Adding a sample of tissue or body fluid to a glass vessel with zinc and acid would produce arsine gas, which would oxidize when ignited, producing a silver-black metallic glaze. Young Bodle went free, though he later confessed to the crime [3]. The Marsh test was not in vain, however.

In 1840, Mathieu Orfila, was summoned to the Lafarge murder trial in Paris (Madame Lafarge was accused of poisoning her husband). The Marsh test had proven inconclusive due to improper handling, and prosecution sought an expert. What made Orfila different? His methods. Piece by piece, he put the case together, eliminating all other possibilities. Orfila is also credited as one of the first to use a microscope to assess stains of blood and bodily fluids. His work refined forensics as a science.

Patient and meticulous, Orfila worked to make chemical analysis part of forensic medicine. He also made careful studies of asphyxiation, the decomposition of bodies, and exhumation. Orfila’s first treatise, Traité des poisons, greatly enhanced and built upon the work of other toxicologists (and quickly surpassed them). Published in 1813, the treatise earned him the title Father of Forensics. By the time he was called to the Lafarge case, Orfila was considered the greatest toxicologist in the world… and all of this well before Charles Norris, Alexander Gettler (the forensic team in NYC) were established [see Poisoner’s Handbook, Blum]. And–incidentally–the Spenzer archive also covers the era before Norris, showing that physicians and chemists had started working on forensics in their own way before the establishment of official crime labs.

salvarsanAt the same time, however, the poison is often the cure. Take the compound mentioned above: arsenic. Dangerous. Deadly. But believe it or not, arsenic also became a valuable medicine. In 1906 Paul Ehrlich, the famous German physician, discovered Salvarsan 606 and Neosalvarsan 614, the world’s first chemotherapeutic agents for systemic treatment of a micro-organism. Sahachiro Hata and Paul Ehrlich discovered the compound in 1909. Ehrlich’s team was the first organized team effort to optimize the biological activity of a lead compound through systematic chemical modifications. They first studied the reaction on animals, particularly mice and rats. Wilhelm compiled his findings in The Treatment of Syphilis with Salvarsan (which had an introduction by Ehrlich) and provides many cases of healing where erosive chancres recede within forty-eight hours. As the author explains:

As a result of these and similar observations, the superiority of the new remedy over those hitherto known was fully demonstrated and I therefore felt justified in assuming the risk that naturally attached to any new remedy. [Wechselmann. The Treatment of Syphilis with Salvarsan.]

Sometimes we forget how fine the line between poison and medicine–but as with all chemotheraputic remedies, the killer is sometimes the cure. And, as the progenitor of forensic science, those who sought to cure (such as Marsh and Orfila) sometimes helped to catch a killer.

[1] Deborah Blum. The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. New York: Penguin, 2011.

[2] Spenzer Archive, Dittrick Museum of Medical History, Cleveland Ohio [book research, Brandy Schillace]

[3] Wilhelm Wechselmann. The Treatment of Syphilis with Salvarsan. New York Rebman Company 1911

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