The Poisoner’s Handbook: A History of Forensic Science and Toxicology

1. Introduction:

In The Poisoner’s Handbook, Deborah Blum’s main function is neither to scrutinize illegal psychology nor to reconstruct prospects for titillation. What fascinates the author is how science has been used to combat crime and, in particular, how chemistry has been used to ferret out murderers.

The book is a kind of history of forensic science with an emphasis on toxicology. It spans the period from the early 1900s to the present day. In that time, the field of toxicology has made great strides. In the early days, it was more art than science. Today, it is a highly sophisticated scientific discipline that uses state-of-the-art technology, such as DNA testing, to confirm its findings.

2. The First Medical Inspector and His Toxicologist:

The book begins with a brief history of forensic science. The first medical inspector in the United States was Dr. Thomas A. Bond. He was appointed by President Abraham Lincoln in 1861. His job was to investigate cases of death by violence or sudden and inexplicable illness.

Bond was assisted by a chemist named Alexander Gettler. Gettler was a self-taught analyst who developed many of the techniques still used today in toxicology. He also established the first toxicology laboratory in the world at Bellevue Hospital in New York City.

Bond and Gettler worked together on many famous cases, including the poisoning of Abraham Lincoln’s secretary, William H. Seward, Jr., and the murder of New York City philanthropist Abram Stevens Hewitt. They also helped to solve the mystery of Mary Rogers, the so-called “Beautiful Cigar Girl” whose body was found floating in the Hudson River in 1841.

3. The CSI Effect:

The book discusses how popular culture has affected the field of forensic science. The CSI effect is a phenomenon that occurs when people who have seen police procedural shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation expect real-life police detectives to use the same high-tech methods that are featured on the show.

This can create problems for police departments because they may feel pressure to use expensive equipment and procedures that are not really necessary. It can also create problems for prosecutors who may feel pressure to use DNA evidence even when it is not really needed.

4. The Deborah Blum Controversy:

The book has been criticized by some people who say that it glamorizes criminals and makes them seem like “rock stars.” Deborah Blum has defended her book, saying that it is not her intention to glorify criminals. She says that she is simply trying to tell the story of how science has been used to combat crime.

5. Conclusion:

The Poisoner’s Handbook is a fascinating history of forensic science with a focus on toxicology. It is well-written and informative. It is also controversial, but Deborah Blum does a good job of defending her book against its critics.


What inspired Deborah Blum to write The Poisoner's Handbook? Deborah Blum was inspired to write The Poisoner's Handbook after she became interested in the history of poison and its role in society. She was also intrigued by the idea of using poisons as a means of murder.

How did the book come to be published? The book came to be published after Blum gave a talk on her research at a conference. An editor from Penguin approached her afterwards and expressed interest in publishing her work.

What is the historical context in which the book is set? The book is set in New York City during the early 20th century, when poisons were commonly used for criminal purposes. This was a time before forensics and toxicology were well-developed sciences, so it was often very difficult to prove that someone had been poisoned.

Who are some of the characters in The Poisoner's Handbook and what role do they play? Some of the characters in The Poisoner's Handbook include Dr. Charles Norris, who was one of the first medical examiners in New York City; Alexander Gettler, who was Norris' chief toxicologist; and Mary Mallon, also known as "Typhoid Mary," who spread typhoid fever through contaminated food despite being symptom-free herself. These characters play important roles in investigating poisoning cases and helping to bring criminals to justice.

What poisons are featured in The Poisoner's Handbook and how do they work? Some of the poisons featured in The Poisoner's Handbook include arsenic, cyanide, and strychnine. These poisons work by causing symptoms that mimic other diseases, so it can be difficult to determine that someone has been poisoned. Arsenic, for example, can cause vomiting and diarrhea that mimic the symptoms of food poisoning. Cyanide can cause respiratory failure and heart arrhythmia, while strychnine causes convulsions and paralysis.

How does Deborah Blum use real life cases throughout her book? Deborah Blum uses real life cases throughout her book to illustrate the effects of different poisons and how they were used to commit murder. She also includes information on how these cases were investigated and the challenges that investigators faced in determining whether or not someone had been poisoned.

Did you find The Poisoner's Handbook enjoyable or informative, or both? I found The Poisoner's Handbook to be both enjoyable and informative. I enjoyed reading about the history of poison and its role in society, as well as the different real-life cases that were included in the book. I also found the book to be very informative, as it provided a lot of detail on how different poisons work and how they can be used to commit murder.