Deborah Blum's poisonous mind
Dissecting the Pulitzer-winner's fascination with all things poison
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Since winning a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for her reporting on animal research, Deborah Blum has written a series of science-related books in which she spends much of her time looking back instead of focusing on whatever’s newest and shiniest. In her latest, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder And The Birth Of Forensic Medicine In Jazz Age New York, Blum continues down this path by highlighting the careers of the medical examiner and toxicologist who laid the groundwork for modern-day forensic medicine, as well as a pop-culture landscape littered with CSI spin-offs. In advance of Blum’s reading at the West Side Barnes & Noble on Thursday, Feb. 25 at 7 p.m., The A.V. Club spoke with her about poisons as cool chemistry, and why science as an elitist enterprise is “a crock.”
The A.V. Club: How did you decide on this poison idea?
Deborah Blum: Maybe it’s this dark, twisted side of me, but I think poisons are fascinating. I’ve read poisonous murder mysteries since I was a little girl; my mom had the world’s greatest collection of Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers novels. When I first got into science writing I found I loved poisons. At one time I wanted to be a chemist.
AVC: What is it exactly about poison that fascinates you?
DB: I know this is going to sound creepy, but I love how poisons kill us. I like that you can take carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen and stir them together one way and get table sugar. But if you stir them together another way, it can kill you in a nanosecond. I think that’s the coolest chemistry ever.
AVC: What drew you to these two men in particular—medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler?
DB: In doing my research, Charles Norris’ name kept coming up as the inventor and father of American forensic toxicology. Once I found him and Gettler, I knew I wanted to tell these guys’ story, because there really wasn’t much written. I was addicted to them from the beginning because they changed the world. I like to resurrect people who are forgotten, and history’s full of them. Celebrities don’t interest me. Norris and Gettler built a science out of scratch, and machines out of spare parts and toothpicks. They worked hours that no sane person ever would. They were determined to make this happen, and that shouldn’t be forgotten.
AVC: Why were Gettler and Norris lost in history?
DB: Beyond the Einsteins and Darwins, most scientists don’t have chroniclers. Einstein and Darwin were geniuses—that helps. Many scientists do amazing stuff, but it just disappears into footnotes and dusty medical journals. If I were masochistic enough, I could spend the rest of my life rescuing scientists. Most of them aren’t natural self-promoters. Even today you’ll hear scientists talk about their peers and say, “Oh, he just wants to be the Carl Sagan of his field.” They’re inhibited by this. I’m a useful person to know if you’re a dead scientist. [Laughs.]
AVC: Why was the early 20th century rife with poisoners?
DB: It was an amazing time to be a poisoner! People who were trying to catch them had a terrible time trying to figure out if poison had even been used, and a lot of the time no one knew how to pull the material out of a corpse. New York City published a report in 1918 saying poisoners could operate with impunity. The country was also in a huge industrial boom where scientists were inventing toxic materials left and right. If you want to be a homicidal maniac, that was definitely the time to be doing it.
AVC: So there was actually a spate of people killing with poisons?
DB: There were some spectacular serial poisoners. There was this one woman, Belle Gunness, who really liked strychnine and killed between 40 and 100 people. Jim Baker traveled the railroads with poisons and just liked to watch people die. When he was caught in New York, he had enough cyanide to kill 100,000 people. He was this glamour guy, and called himself “Texas Jim.” He had fan clubs and there were women around the country who wanted to be involved with him. There were poisoners on a grand and tabloid scale. You don’t see poisoner celebrities so much today.
AVC: How does writing about the history of science benefit readers today?
DB: I don’t think we can understand who we are without illuminating the steps that led us here. And I like to remind people we have a really good knowledge base if we would just pay attention to what’s already there—it keeps us from being too arrogant. If you take something like poison, it’s still so applicable today. And if we’d just remember some of these things we might not be so stupid. There are still 50,000 accidental carbon monoxide poisonings every year. It’s infuriating to me that we think we’re so much smarter about this stuff when we’re still making many of the same mistakes.
Editor's Note: Since the time this article first ran, Deborah Blum retracted a statement she made regarding Timothy Ferris and has apologized for any offense it may have caused. It has been removed.