Friday, February 28, 2014

The Poisoner's Handbook | Deborah Blum

"Murder and the birth of forensic medicine in Jazz age New York" says the cover. It's all that and more.

This is a wonderful non-fiction account of the science of toxicology, pathology, forensics and the art of poisons. The setting is a mix of wild west and an emerging city trying to deal with thousands of deaths a year, corrupt city officials and two amazing men who challenged the system.

Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler were the two key men who standardised the procedures in crime scene forensic examination of bodies, the retrieval of cadavers and autopsies. Norris redefined the job of Medical  Examiner and the science of toxicology. Previous to his time, Medical Examiners were politically appointed, included plumbers, realtors, and drunks. Cause of death were either made up or exaggerated. Norris trained Gettler, the best chemist he ever worked with, to design tests for all kinds of poison and noxious substances and they pioneered systems to prove victims were murdered.

What I loved about this book is the very readable style, the amount of research done and the stories of people who were killed or were killing others with seemingly innocent substances.
Many died of radiation poisoning when using cosmetics that included Radon. Gas leaks decimated many innocent people in their homes, arsenic and lead and cyanide were included in  anything and everything. It's remarkable how many children died from poisoning in this era.

Once these new compounds were discovered, they were used in many common substances, with no regulations or labelling. Fascinating to see how Norris and Gettler were so forward thinking, astute and resilient in the face of ridicule. When they began in the department, science was laughed out of court and was not thought of as reliable material in criminal cases. By the end, they were providing the only proof needed to convict murderer's of their crimes.

At the the time of Gettler's retirement he estimated he had done 100 000 autopsies.

Fantastic read.

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