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What’s Your Poison? Science And Medicine Vs. Chemical Poisoning

The Poisoner's HandbookThis is going to be a quick welcome to Deborah Blum who has just moved her blog, Speakeasy Science, to ScienceBlogs.

Why quick?

Because I am only 22 pages away from finishing her latest book, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.

This engaging tale of the race of science and medicine against chemical poisonings for profit and punishment features the true story of NYC chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler.

Of course, the other actors are arsenic, methanol, chloroform, thallium, and radium, among others. In the teens through the mid-1930s, long before benchtop atomic absorption spectrophotometry and LC/MS instruments, Norris and Gettler devised methods to detect poisons in human tissues with high sensitivity. These advances led to the prosecution of some, the absolution of the wrongly-accused, and revealed that our own government poisoned citizens who dared to challenge Prohibition.

Blum’s colorful biography accounts somewhat for her fixation with insects, chickens, monkeys, and chemistry, a discipline she pursued at Florida State University until setting her braid on fire and switching to journalism at the University of Georgia.

Blum won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting in a newspaper series that led to her book, The Monkey Wars, about the ethics and polarization of primate research. A couple of books (Sex on the Brain, Love at Goon Park, and Ghost Hunters) and a plethora of writing assignments since, Blum now holds an endowed chair at the University of Wisconsin and as the Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism.

But before I learned of her award-winning writing, I first came upon Deborah Blum as co-editor (with Mary Knudson and Robin Marantz Henig) of A Field Guide for Science Writers, the official guide of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW). The guide was recommended to me by Tom Linden, MD, when I joined the graduate advisory board of his medical journalism program at UNC-Chapel Hill in his attempt to give a scientist some background on the profession.

Regular readers know that I am a huge fan of the history of science and medicine, so you can probably understand why I can’t wait to get back to reading The Poisoner’s Handbook. I was also originally trained as a toxicologist and published one of my first papers on heavy metals effects in the kidney before I moved to the discipline that chemicals are best used for therapeutic benefit. Hence, I am honored to now be writing under the ScienceBlogs masthead with a wonderful writer who has been one of my inspirations and with whom I share several passions.

But while I offer I warm welcome to Deborah Blum, a part of me also wants to warn those in her real life not to leave their beverage unattended in her presence.

*This blog post was originally published at Terra Sigillata*


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