With the spectacular array of medical and surgical technology available to the modern physician and surgeon, it’s easy to regard our colleagues of a century ago as skilled tradesmen who could do little more than drain pus, amputate gangrenous limbs and treat the maladies of the day with voodoo and tonics.
In reality, the birth of modern medicine dates back almost 200 years, and the practitioners of the time were quite sophisticated. In the mid to late 1800’s the development of general anesthesia gave surgeons access to the body’s inner sanctums (the abdominal, thoracic and cranial cavities), the germ theory of disease explained infection, and chemistry and physiology gave rise to clinical science of pharmacology.
The early twentieth century saw the integration of lab testing and x-ray imaging into routine medical care, and the mid-twentieth century brought the discovery of antibiotics. Of course, there are many chapters to the story of modern medicine, but one of the most dramatic is the rise of forensic toxicology during the 1920’s, and it can largely be attributed to two men.
In The Poisoner’s Handbook, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Deborah Blum takes us back to 1920’s New York where jazz is roaring, public-health policy is lacking, bathtub gin is king, and forensic medicine is in its infancy, thus giving the murderous poisoners of the day the upper hand. But over the coming decades, all that would change. Enter the dynamic duo of Charles Norris, New York City’s first medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, the profoundly talented chemist who founded the country’s first dedicated toxicology laboratory at Bellevue Hospital.
Together, Norris and Gettler elevated forensic chemistry from a fledgling science that was uniformly repudiated by the justice system, to an often irrefutable aspect of a prosecuting attorney’s case (consider the state of DNA evidence at the time of the OJ Simpson trial, and now). Not only did they turn the tide on the poisoners, but they also took on the public-health issues of automobile safety (pushing for licensing laws), leaded gas (to protect gasoline handlers from lead poisoning), accidental carbon monoxide poisoning (faulty stoves, heaters, and gaslights), and the mother of all public-health issues during the 1920’s, the prohibition-induced consumption of industrial alcohols (wood, and methyl alcohol) as substitutes for the newly outlawed grain alcohol.
The contributions Norris and Gettler made to science, medicine, public health, medico-legal jurisprudence, and the growth and development of the medical examiner system is nothing short of Herculean. If you are a science geek, a history buff, you like murder mysteries, sensational murders and the trials that follow, or you’re thinking about poisoning someone, I highly recommend The Poisoner’s Handbook. If you’ve read it, let me know what you think. If you read it based on my recommendation, please come back and leave a comment.