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Science Talk

The Poisoner's Handbook: The Sinister Side of Chemistry

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Deborah Blum talks about her new work, The Poisoner's Handbook, a look at how easy it used to be to kill someone with poison and the researchers who made poisoning much harder to get away with. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include blog.deborahblum.com

Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Deborah Blum talks about her new work, The Poisoner's Handbook, a look at how easy it used to be to kill someone with poison and the researchers who made poisoning much harder to get away with. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. Web sites related to this episode include blog.deborahblum.com 

Podcast Transcription

Steve: Welcome to Science Talk, the weekly podcast of Scientific American posted on February 25th, 2010. I'm Steve Mirsky.

Blum: That's called A Poisoner's Handbook, but in the most subversive way, its about something that is near and dear to my heart, which is that I think chemistry is both beautiful and sinister.

Steve: And that's Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist Deborah Blum, author of the new work, The Poisoner's Handbook. We'll talk about that handbook and how, thanks to the work of some dedicated individuals, it's a lot harder to get away with murder through chemistry than it used to be. Plus, we'll test your knowledge about some recent science in the news. First up, Deb Blum; we were both at the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego. We spoke on February 19th.

Steve: Many people may not read the acknowledgments. So in your book, they're called the gratitudes .

Blum: Yes.

Steve: But I read them, and I just want to know, is your husband any more relaxed around you, since the publication of your book all about poison ?

Blum: Not entirely, but he did tell me that when they find his body, they're all going to know who did it.

Steve: You say that to your[self], probably subconsciously. W hen you'd talk about working on the book, he would move his coffee cup, just little f arther away from you and closer to him, so he [could keep an] eye on it.

Blum: Well, imagine that you're sitting at breakfast and your wife is saying, "Y ou know, what's really interesting about the way that cyanide kills people?" A nd it's like a reflex, right? "Cyanide" comes out of her mouth and your coffee cup is moving. I've seen this many mornings and I'm just the kind of person who yacks about what she 's working on, so he knows a lot about poison.

Steve: So the book is obviously all about poison and that makes it all about chemistry; it's really a chemistry book in disguise.

Blum: It is. I t's called The Poisoner's Handbook, but in the most subversive way, it's about something that is near and dear to my heart, which is that I think chemistry is both beautiful and sinister.

Steve: Yeah, because what I did n't realize until I read your book is that basically up until about a 100 years [ago] you could pretty much kill somebody with poison and get away with it.

Blum: That's right. New York City issued a report in 1980 in which they actually wrote that poisoners could operate with impunity in New York City, and so part of my book is about the invention of forensic toxicology. And we take this kind of CSI stuff for so for granted now that scientists are taken seriously that they know how to do these amazing chemical things, but before the 1920 s it was a terrific time to be a poisoner, and not so great a time to be a poisoner's intended victim.

Steve: Or a researcher trying to prove that somebody had been poisoned and somebody in particular had done the poisoning, because the techniques had to be developed. A nd you talk a lot about these two main people, who were the real heroes of the book, really, the real heroes of what has turned into forensic science.

Blum: That's right, and I think of them as heroes. I mean, these guys were civil servants. [There was] the first chief medical examiner of New York City, Charles Norris. He started in 1918, and he hired the first forensic chemist [in] an American city, his name was Alexander Gettler, and they were flooded with poisons. There were murders, there were different public health hazards that had come up; there was not a lot of good science to understand those chemicals. So they were doing this research as they went. They would get a murder case and sometimes they would be doing the animal experiments to figure out the poison right in the middle of the trial; or Gettler used to— I always love this story, I don’t know why— but he would go to his corner butcher shop and he would pick up a few pounds of raw liver.

Steve: Which he paid for himself.

Blum: Which he paid for himself— they were so under funded —and he would go and chop it up and inject different chemicals in it daily just to try to figure out what these chemicals did in tissue. I mean, it was that by the seat of their pants, literally.

Steve: What they did in tissue so that when they were presented with a corpse, they could look at the internal organs of that corpse and say, "W ell, now we know if the liver is now this color, if the kidneys have this kind of damage to them, we know what kind of poison was involved."

Blum: That's exactly right, and for example, if you took a really common and well- known poison today, carbon monoxide, it turns the internal organs to kind of a cherry-red pink, and that effect in the bloodstream also flushes your skin. So occasionally they would get people who, there was one case I wrote about in which a man had strangled his wife and then turned on the gas and tr ied to pretend she died of an accidental gas poison. They actually could look at the color of her skin, pale; look at her internal organs, normal; and say "N o, there's no way this was carbon monoxide poisoning." But imagine if they hadn't known that; that he could easily have gotten away with it. So all of these little steps, these baby steps built toxicology and built the forensics we have today.

Steve: And not only did they have to pay for things themselves because they were underfunded, but there was some actual hostility on the part of the political powers of the time. And it's also, the book is kind of a history of jazz-age New York too, because you get all of th ese stories of the corruption in government and the shenanigans going on, just the way the whole city was run, and these scientists had to fight all of that just to try to get their evidence together.

Blum: That's right; I wanted my book to have kind of the feel of an early 20th century murder mystery, which was one of the kinda inspirational sources for what I did. I love Agatha Christy, I love Dorothy Sayers and I love that kind of elegant murderess intent behind the way they told stories. I wanted my book to have that feel and to do that I wanted it to be have a real J azz A ge New York feel, so there's a lot of background of Prohibition boot legging .

Steve: There's great stuff with —I mean I've lived in New York all my life. I didn't know that there used to be a Ninth A venue elevated train.

Blum: Yeah. I hadn't even realized because I don't live in New York, but I hadn't realized that there were elevated trains and that they frequently caught on fire and crashed into each other.

Steve: Because they were all made out of wood back then.

Blum: Yes, and it was a very corrupt private system, which goes back to the corrupt politics— of course they didn't even have a professional medical examiner, Norris was the first. T hey had coroners, which were really patronage positions, and the coroner I heard that he replaced actually was so drunk so much of the time that he …

Steve: He'd show up at crime scenes drunk.

Blum: Plastered, and in the court room and he would drop in[to] the courtroom drunk and drink while he was in the courtroom. It was unbelievable, and yet this corrupt system [was] so in place that when Charles Norris first applied to be medical examiner they first required him to do an autopsy as part of the qualification, and then they prosecuted and filed charges against him for doing an autopsy. It was incredible. Fortunately, the governor of New York stepped in and he actually got the job and did an amazing job, but he fought with city politicians throughout, which was one of the reasons they never had any money. And I've asked myself, Norris came from a wealthy society family, he had an independent income, he was passionately devoted to public service. You see that throughout his tenure, he died in 1935, but he really wanted what he did in forensics to change the world, and he spent so much of his money on that laboratory. He paid people salaries, he bought not [not only did he] buy liver and other supplies, but Norris supplied everything, [including] the office clock, when the Mayor took it away.

Steve: One of the really frightening things about the book is that in addition to the purposeful murders that go into telling the story of the use of poisons and of the way that they figure it out, the toxicologists figure it out, how to identify poisons; the scary thing was just how many deaths occurred by accident every year or accident is the wrong word, b ut negligence, because there was no price to pay if somebody wanted to fumigate …

Blum: Yes.

Steve: … a nd it happened to kill three people in the apartment upstairs. There was no penalty for that, and I mean if the numbers of people who were being killed in New York City— because the book is mostly based in New York City— if for example 600 people, I think, one of the poisons discussed in the book, may be it was cyanide or I forgot if it was carbon monoxide.

Blum: It was carbon monoxide.

Steve: If that would kill 600 people a year today in New York, there would be a huge outcry, but back then it was just, hey you know, you're unlucky, you died from carbon monoxide.

Blum: It was incredible. A nd one of the ways I did research for the book is that I trawled through the newspapers of the time. I was looking for coverage and you could not open up a paper in that period without seeing accidental poison death, spectacular poison suicides and really some very bizarre murders; and you're right, a real acceptance of which I have to remember that this was in an era where a lot of these chemicals were just being introduced, they were the backbone of the industrial age. People regarded them as this scientific magic for which you had to somehow pay a price. And there was a bizarre acceptance of that. I'm not saying we've entirely outgrown that. People still die of carbon monoxide poisoning. We still have industrial chemicals that we haven't figured out. I mean, in some ways it's been interesting to me to think about the fact that there are lot of lessons learned in the 1920s that we still seem to be learning, right? B ut at that time people lived in a bizarre soup of chemicals, it was really incredible.

Steve: You obviously did a lot of trawling through old newspapers; that's clear from the descriptions in the book. You also got your hands on actual medical records and scientific records of the time, and I hear through the grapevine, because I'm here at this conference with lot of other science journalists, that you actually got sick from handling some very old records.

Blum: I did. I think I just was one of the first people to, kind of, excavate these boxes because people have certainly, even forensic scientist[s], this was a forgotten story. I didn't even realize how important these guys were. I mean, it's one of the things that's really interesting to me, when you go back into science history, is you find people who'd have done these amazing things and they're in the footnotes. I mean, Gettler was in the footnotes as the father of American forensic toxicology, and yet their actual stories are lost. You know, they didn't have someone to tell their stories. So I've realized, I was thinking later and I thought, you know, I'm such a good friend to dead scientists. Dead scientists should, like, contact me because I'm so good at telling their stories.

Steve: [I] h ope you can find a medium; that will be a whole different show.

Blum: Yeah.

Steve: But Gettler is still cited.

Blum: Yes. I mean, his work on cyanide, h e did a paper on cyanide that still turns [up] in EPA citations. He did the fundamental work on a poison called thallium, which is a massive systemic poison that is still used sometimes as a pesticide. He was the first scientist in the world to figure out a way to tell that a person had been intoxicated at time of death. If you think about it, we take this for granted, right. It's a DOA case, the driver was drunk; no one knew how to do that. They hadn't have a clue how to figure this out, and he not only did that research, he built the apparatus, these enormous clanking apparatus, to actually distill out alcohol from dead people's brains and get a sense of intoxication. He was the first scientist to do the same thing for chloroform, y ou know, how much chloroform is in a dead person's brain and how did it affect them? He did fundamental work on the chemistry of carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke; he did it for general carbon monoxide poisoning. He was the first scientist to show that the gas carbon monoxide only affects you when you are alive, you don't absorb it after death, which is really important because otherwise how can you figure out the fatal dose? If you actually absorb carbon monoxide after death and you're examining the corpse, you have to know if carbon monoxide is absorbed after death to figure out what was the fatal dose and he did that work too. When you actually get into what he did, he wrote the book on some of the most important poison research that we have still have today. Amazing guy incredibly dedicated.

Steve: And carbon monoxide in particular, just a follow-up on that. You have to be alive to be poisoned by it, because you have to be breathing, because the carbon monoxide takes the place of the oxygen, its binds to the heme and hemoglobin.

Blum: That's right.

Steve: More tightly than oxygen does.

Blum: So that you get, instead of oxyhemoglobin, which is sort of the carrier system for oxygen in your bloodstream, you get carboxyhemoglobin, and it's really a fascinating chemical reaction because, you know, it produces that bright cherry color, but it keeps your blood bright red for weeks and months, and he did that work, too, which helped because if someone had been killed by carbon monoxide poisoning, and you only suspected it later, he actually showed you could dig someone [up] months after they died and there would be their blood, almost glowing in the dark red, I'm exaggerating, but literally glowing. Carbon monoxide is fascinating poison.

Steve: You devote a chapter to carbon monoxide, chloroform, arsenic, cyanide. One of the things about cyanide, cyanide is portrayed in film all the time as almost instantaneous and pretty much painless death, but that isn't the way it is.

Blum: No, it's nothing of the type. I mean, it kills at a super-high dose. I t might kill you in minutes, but it's [an] extremely painful death. You go through a form of chemical suffocation because like carbon monoxide, it shoves the oxygen out of your bloodstream, it disrupts nervous system transmissions, you have horrible gasping convulsions, I mean, people go through terrible convulsions and some times its minutes but, literally, it can be hours. And I told one story, I think, of a scientist who tested, I mean, scientists are fairly crazy in the way they take risks.

Steve: [There's a] lot of that in your book; they're actually testing these substances …

Blum: On themselves!

Steve: Cyanide, arsenic, on themselves!

Blum: I mean, there were scientists, who were mixing arsenic into different foods to see if [you] can detect the taste— I don't know how they survived that— and [there] were scientists who were taking what they thought of as very small doses of poisons, just so that they knew the results. And this one guy was screaming that he was suffocating. and he had taken a very small dose. I mean, they saved him, but he wasn't going, "W ell, I'll just take a little nap now," he was hysterical.

Steve: So carbon monoxide, wood alcohol, ethanol, what are the other poisons that you devote chapters to? Thallium and …

Blum: Thallium. I did methyl alcohol which is the same thing as wood alcohol, but I was looking at it in the light of poisoning in Prohibition. A nd I did a chapter on radium. Speaking of Marie Curie, which was really an interesting [thing] for me to look at, because for a long time, people wouldn't have said, well let's classify radioactive elements as a poison. Recently we had that case where Russia apparently assassinated a former spy by putting plutonium radionuclide into his food. So in that case, we would say, yeah that's a radiation poisoner. A nd radium was really interesting to me because I wanted to look at, at what point did something change from being a miracle substance as radium was when it was discovered— p eople thought of it as this radioactive miracle, like little suns that you could swallow and it would make you healthier and light up your life essentially in all kinds of ways.

Steve: When I was a kid, I had a watch with still with radium hands and numbers were made out radium.

Blum: Really!

Steve: So that it glowed in the dark.

Blum: And women in particular, used to work in factories and they would paint those numbers on.

Steve: And they would touch their brush to their tongue.

Blum: That's right. They would sharpen the point of the brush with their lips, so they were constantly swallowing radium, and this became a really famous public health case or an industrial health case, which I talked about. T hese women, who eventually were known as "the radium girls", they began dying; they died horrible deaths. Their jaws crumbled away, their bones fractured, they developed these terrible aplastic anemias, and people kept saying, " O h! It's nothing, it's nothing, it's nothing, it's nothing." It turned out, and this system works out the mechanics and chemistry, and the way poisons work are so interesting, that if you were going to be poisoned by radium, t he very worst way to be poisoned by it was to swallow it, because the body essentially treats it as if it were calcium. So these ones that were swallowing radium, it was going straight to their bones, and you know, it would stay there, spitting out radiation and just breaking, not only destroying the bones, but destroying the [marrow]. It was phenomenal, and yet there was huge government resistance to regulating it, still for several years. I mean, it's fascinating to watch the politics of the way governments respond to poisons and those kinds of public health threats.

Steve: Because it's usually a threat to business.

Blum: That's exactly right. And so in the case of radium, these poor little Italian-American watch painters— that's mostly who they were— didn't actually force a major change in government policy. B ut what happened was at the same time, you know, I was telling [you] that radium was considered so healthy for so long— r adium was in health drinks, it was in things to improve your complexion, and some very wealthy and influential people became sick from radiation poisoning and it took that case to change the regulation.

Steve: So, of all the stories that you weaved throughout the book of individual murder cases, what was the one that was your favorite?

Blum: Oh, the one that creeped me out the most!

Steve: We'll go with "creep you out" rather than "favorite".

Blum: Yes. [It] was an arsenic murderess named Fanny Creighton. A nd when I'm writing a book, like this, where I'm telling the story of people, and I live in the heads of the people I'm writing about to some extent, you know; I'm thinking why did the scientist do this thing? What drove him to do that, and so in this case, she was a murderess who appears twice in my book. I spent a lot of time, you know, getting close to her and at one point, I actually had to slam my laptop down closed and leave the house. I thought, I'm so we ird ing myself out with this woman, right? So Fanny Creighton killed her brother for a $1,000 insurance policy and got away with that. I mean, she's a great case study because the science that could have convicted her was completely washed away by legal maneuvers. She was wonderful at portraying herself as [a] sort of [martyred] saint. She had a great public personality [a] sort of persecuted- Madonna-like personality. The newspapers loved her, she [got] off and then she comes back again and she kills someone else, and it's clear that she would've killed someone else. So that one for me was a great, if they hadn't caught her, and they did catch her [and] this second time she was convicted. I wanted to look at the fact that poisoners can get really overconfident because my book is not, it doesn't glorify poison in any way. I t's not, I'm not saying that poisoners are wonderful, and I'm saying that poison deaths are terrible and so Fanny Creighton for me is a great example for what happens to poisoners, which is they're so convinced they can get away with it. A nd yet here's the science finally, in her second conviction, coming up and completely nailing her. I love that case.

Steve: And how did they actually catch her?

Blum: She poisoned actually a friend and a neighbor; they're wome n who lived in [the] same house and they in this case, again, she used arsenic. Arsenic was, you know, her favorite poison. In this case they did a meticulous analysis. Gettler was able to prove that this poor, sick woman— they had [fed her an eggnog] loaded with arsenic— that the eggnog contained, it was like something like 10 times the lethal dose, and they found it in her tissues; and they tracked down the purchase of the poison and everything was completely lined [up] , and so that's one of the closing cases in my book. Her first trial in which she walks away is one of the opening cases, and I love that [arc] , in which you finally see the forensics and the science falling into place and then being able to kind of close their hands around these poisoners and say, " N o, no, no more; we're doing this now.”

Steve: So, it’s a terrific book. It's a fun book, but you're absolutely right. In no way, do the poisoners ever get your sympathy or seem like romantic characters. There are many places in the book, where literally 100 years later, it breaks your heart. This poor girl, who goes and has the huckleberry pie…,

Blum: Yes.

Steve: And her mother who wanted to give her a box lunch to take to work that day, and instead the teenage girl, she goes to the local cafeteria and buys the huckleberry pie, and a few hours later she's dead. And after all these years you read it and you still feel terrible.

Blum: Isn't that the saddest [story?] A nd she was [a] 17-year-old girl, who just was working to help support her family, and she died within hours after eating lunch and when the police went to talk to her mother, all her mother could talk about was the fact that she had wanted to make her daughter a lunch. And isn't that such a heartbreaking moment, and you know you'd replay it a million times that "if only "—"if only I’d made her do that," and I wanted people to see that that these are losses in real people.

Steve: Somebody had put arsenic …

Blum: … i n the pie crust.

Steve: Someone had sneaked into the kitchen of this restaurant the night before and mixed arsenic into a bowl of pastry dough, that was waiting for the next day's lunch; and then, I assume, sat and watched. And so, I wanted to show people, to me poisoners are the creepiest murderers. T hey're premeditated always; you don't have an impulse poisoning. They're incredibly cold at heart and calculated, and I didn't want to glamorize that in any way. I wanted to show the effects of that. I wanted to show how poison worked, and I wanted to look at the way that scientists finally figured out a way to catch up with these guys, because they really needed to be caught up with. I mean, one of the things I find so interesting about poison is that it shows us people, in so me ways, at [our] absolute worst. I mean, these very cold calculated killings show us at [our] worst , and yet you have this passionate work to stop it and believe that it's so morally wrong that it gets this high priority. A nd that shows us at our best, our absolute insistence [that] this has to be stopped. A nd so I love the way it shows us in sort of dark and light.

Steve: Check out Deborah Blum's blog about culture and chemistry. It's called Speakeasy Science, and you can find it at blog.deborahblum.com.

Now it's time to play TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Here are four science stories; only three are true. See if you know which story is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS.

Story number 1: Speaking of poison, residents of Utah die of poison at twice the rate as the national average.

Story number 2: New nouns and verbs get learned in different parts of the brain.

Story number 3: Relativity theory says that the pull of gravity will make clocks run slower. New research has confirmed this to an unprecedented degree by measuring the vibrations of atoms.

And story number 4: Male house finches give a wide berth to other finches who are sick, which enables the sick birds to get more to eat at bird feeders and thus recover faster from their illness.

A correction from last week: I referred to the bacterium that causes malaria, it is in fact a protozoan that causes malaria. Thanks to Australian listener Neil Saunders for catching that error. And time is up!!

Story number 1 is true. Residents of Utah do die of poison at twice the national average. So says Deb Blum in her blog, based on a recent article in The Salt Lake City Tribune. She writes that the national average for poison fatalities, mostly accidents and suicides, is 11 deaths per 100,000 thousand residents annually. In Utah though, the yearly rate is 21.3 per 100,000. Pain killers, cleaning products and cosmetics are the big three poisoners nationwide and nobody is really sure why the rate is so high in Utah or as high as it is in the rest of the country, but multiple prescriptions and plain old carelessness are probably big factors.

Story number 2 is true. Different parts of the brain apparently are assigned the tasks of learning new nouns versus new verbs. That's according to research in the Journal NeuroImage. The scientists observe the discrete brain functions in action with functional magnetic resonance imaging. Twenty-one subjects learned new words while their brains were tracked. They had to learn the words, which were made up based on context. For example, in the phrase, "the student is nissing noodles for breakfast" and "the ma n nissed a delicious meal," the verb nis means cook (or possibly burned or ruined or threw up). Anyway, learning nouns activates the left fusiform gyrus while learning verbs [switches] on other regions, the left inferior frontal gyrus and part of the left posterior medial temporal gyrus, for those of you balivating at home.

And story number 3 is true. Einstein was [right again] according to measurements of the vibration of cesium atoms. R esearchers hit some vibrating atoms with a laser, which kind of boosted them up against the pull of gravity and these atoms experienced time as passing more quickly than the ones still under the influence of the greater gravitational force. By the way, one of the authors of the study, in the j ournal Nature, is Nobel physicist Steven Chu, the s ecretary of e nergy. I wonder whether the other cabinet members find relativistic physics equally fascinating.

All of which means that story number 4, about sick finches getting lots of space at feeders is TOTALL……. Y BOGUS. Because what is true is that healthy finches actually prefer to feed next to sick ones despite the increased likelihood of catching the illness. The risky behavior probably springs from the more docile attitude of the sick finches [who are] less likely to hassle the healthy ones trying to feed. The finding is in the j ournal Biology Letters and was discussed on the daily SciAm podcast 60-Second Science on February 19th, which noted that eating with the infirm means you're more likely to wind up with seed in your beak than a beak in your eye.

Well, that's it for this episode. We'll be back soon with a discussion about the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In the meantime, get your science news at www.scientificamerican.com, where you could find our In-Depth Report on the science of the Winter Olympics. And don't forget to follow us on Twitter, where you'll get a tweet every time a new articles hits the Web site. Our Twitter name: @SciAm. For Science Talk, the podcast of Scientific American, I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.

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