Poisons and poisonings — Death by Stealth

By Tony Hargreaves, December 2016, 297 pages, Print ISBN:978-1-78262-717-3, Paperback CAN $41.12  (at the time of publication)

The book Poisons and Poisonings — Death by Stealth is outstanding for the following reasons: the book explains different poisons found in history; it explains the numerous ways one could be poisoned (e.g., injection vs inhalation); and it describes poisons derived from animals, plants, minerals and human concoctions. The book ties together chemistry, biology, history and forensic science by using interesting case studies throughout history. Two extraordinarily interesting chapters describe 1) the subtle differences between a substance being considered a medicine vs a poison and 2) the unique chemical reactions that are associated with the death and ultimate decay of a poisoned body.

The book concludes with an examination of how chemistry is used to connect poisons to a crime.

It is always a bonus when I read a book that gives me a copious number of interesting stories that I can relay to my classes to connect chemistry to the “real world”. Poison and Poisonings provides stories that I can now use to make direct connections to the following: redox, solubility, Roman numerals in nomenclature, buffers, acids and bases, crystal growing and pH, just to name a few. The book is arranged chronologically, starting with the Egyptian usage of the “penalty of the peach” as part of their justice system. The book then examines the period between 1820 and 1850 — the peak period of poison used as a murder weapon. Industrial-scale poisoning used during WWI and WWII is also explained. The use of different radioactive materials employed both innocuously (e.g., The “Radium Girls” painting the dials on watches) or as an assassination tool (e.g., Litvinenko and polonium) are addressed. Thankfully, the book also concludes with some positive aspects of chemistry being used to determine whether a poisoning was accidental or deliberate.

Reading Poisons and Poisonings became a great combination of learning both history and chemistry. As a teacher I often provide different techniques to solve problems in chemistry, and I often say, “Pick your poison.” Interestingly enough, in chapter five, I learned the origin of the saying. One of my favourite stories was also on “Phossy Jaw” — the effect of working with white phosphorus. The book is topical, too, as it makes reference to ricin, the deadly poison used in the Breaking Bad television series. If you’re a Harry Potter fan you will enjoy the explanation of the “real” mandrake. I was disturbed by the fact that so many people in history — and probably today as well — think that they can get away with murder using poisons. It was reassuring to know that, in most cases, however, the perpetrator was caught and convicted.

Poisons and Poisoning has a cornucopia of stories that would appeal to any chemist. I recommend reading and using many of these stories in your classroom. It is another invaluable link in my chain in my quest to becoming a better and more interesting chemistry teacher.    

textbook cover with orange frog