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Review: Deborah Blum's 'Poisoner's Handbook' a witness to the early days of forensic medicine

How do I poison thee? Let me count the ways: arsenic, mercury, strychnine, chloroform, wood alcohol, carbon monoxide. These were just a few of the options available to would-be murderers whose crimes less than a century ago were likely to go unpunished because of bumbling coroners and shoddy methods of chemical detection.

But as Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum recounts in her fascinating book The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, that outcome began to change when a public-spirited chief medical examiner and a creative toxicologist teamed up to usher in a new era in forensic medicine.

Blum's book is replete with carefully researched accounts of how pioneering work by Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler brought killers to justice and vindicated others who had been falsely accused of crimes.

The methodologies devised by the two in their Bellevue Hospital laboratory set a standard that was adopted nationwide, nurturing a science that has become grist for some of today's most popular TV shows and novels.

Besides criminal cases, Blum chronicles scandalous tragedies involving industrial workers who were poisoned on the job. They include the so-called "Radium Girls," who touched paintbrushes to their lips to get the sharp tip needed to paint luminous numbers on watch dials. After nine of the young women suffered mysterious deaths, Norris and his staff examined their crumbling bones and determined they had fallen victim to radiation they had unknowingly absorbed.

The book covers the period from 1915 to 1936, embracing the Prohibition era of speakeasies and bathtub gin. Norris had warned that the decision to outlaw alcohol would trigger an epidemic of methyl alcohol poisonings but drew little solace in seeing how his worst fears were borne out.

Blum, a longtime newspaper writer and now a professor of science journalism, tells a captivating story of two men whose skill and dedication helped transform the criminal justice system.

The Poisoner's Handbook

By Deborah Blum

Penguin, 336 pages, $25.95

Review: Deborah Blum's 'Poisoner's Handbook' a witness to the early days of forensic medicine 03/06/10 [Last modified: Saturday, March 6, 2010 3:30am]
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