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Picking The Poison: The Story Of Forensic Medicine

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Picking The Poison: The Story Of Forensic Medicine

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Picking The Poison: The Story Of Forensic Medicine

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Here's a scene from a recent episode of "CSI."

(Soundbite of TV show, "CSI")

Mr. LAURENCE FISHBURNE (Actor): (As Dr. Raymond Langston) Mr. Hughes, your prints were found on crime scene evidence. You're under arrest. Come with me. Escort this young lady to...

RAZ: Those crime scene investigators - and their real-life counterparts - rely on an innovation that dates back to the early 20th century: forensic science.

At that time, as writer Deborah Blum points out, factories were producing a new set of modern poisons, poisons that could be used for murder.

Ms. DEBORAH BLUM (Author, "The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York "): (Reading) Morphine went into teething medicines for infants, opium into routinely prescribed sedatives; arsenic was an ingredient in everything from pesticides to cosmetics. The products of the new chemistry stocked the shelves of doctors' offices, businesses, homes, pharmacies and grocery stores.

RAZ: That's Deborah Blum reading from "The Poisoner's Handbook: A Story About Murder and the Rise of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York."

Deborah Blum, welcome to the program.

Ms. BLUM: Thanks. It's great to be here.

RAZ: Up until the first few decades of the 20th century, it was shockingly easy to poison someone and get away with it, as you write. How is that possible?

Ms. BLUM: There were a number of reasons for that. Partly, it was that scientists hadn't really developed the forensic tools they needed. They couldn't always detect a poison in tissue. They hadn't even identified this incredible wash of chemicals that were pouring into society with the rise of the 20th century Industrial Revolution, the materials that you could pretty much pick up at the corner grocery store.

So, say that I decided that I wanted to get rid of you and I want to hide it. And so I'm going to pick a poison like arsenic, and arsenic, as it turns out, is fairly tasteless. And if you give it at just the right dose, you could actually make it mimic like a gastrointestinal illness.

And so poisoners, before you really had scientists to come in there and say, no, I'm looking at this corpse in autopsy; this does not look like a natural death, they could use arsenic and, you know, very handily pack off whoever they tried to get rid of. In fact, for a while, arsenic had the nickname the inheritance powder because so many people used it to get to the fortune they just couldn't wait for anymore.

RAZ: And it was untraceable.

Ms. BLUM: Right. And by untraceable, we just mean that scientists don't know how to find it in a body. The science was slowly starting to creep along but the other part of this formula is the criminal justice system. And if you have good science and cops who don't know how to work with it, you're in the same position as if you have bad science.

RAZ: And that sets a stage for this real shift that begins when a man named Charles Norris is appointed as the first chief medical examiner in New York City. He elevates this field of research into a high science. How does he do it?

Ms. BLUM: He was determined to make what he did powerful and important and really to change the criminal justice system. He believed that there could not be good criminal detection unless it marched hand in hand with good science.

RAZ: And of course all revolutionaries usually have good people next to them or beneath him. And he had this chemist that he sort of tapped named Alexander Gettler, who really, as you describe it, becomes the father of toxicology.

Ms. BLUM: Yes. And you see him in, you know, in sort of the footnotes of textbooks calling him exactly that: the father of American forensic toxicology. And he discovered so many things. And he would lie in bed driving his wife crazy drawing out formulas and mentally arranging new equipment. And then he would go to his lab and build it 'cause they just didn't have it.

Sometimes, literally, they would start a prosecution without knowing how to find the poison. And he would be running these tests during the trial and the poison labs or the chemistry labs, I think they must have been amazing to be in because a lot of what they did is they could detect poisons according to different colors resulting on tests. So you would have cyanide glowing an evening-sky blue and arsenic, this translucent green and carbon monoxide a ruby red. There was like this incredible blaze of color as they teased these poisons out.

RAZ: Deborah Blum, I was fascinated by a story you tell about the Radium Girls, and I just want you to tell that story, because it's just unbelievable.

Ms. BLUM: Isn't that incredible? During World War I, people discovered that they could make watch faces glow in the dark, become luminous. And they used a paint that involved the element radium, which had been discovered by Marie Curie and her husband Pierre.

And so factories hired young women to paint the numbers and the beautiful lacy, luminous designs on watch faces. And radium at the time was considered a kind of miracle element, certainly...

RAZ: It was used in water, right? A sort of healthy water?

Ms. BLUM: That's exactly right. There was a health drink called Radithor, which was full of radium, and the idea was that radium was really like this tiny, healthy sun. It was like this miraculous, sparkling, glowing element and all you had to do was drink some of this wonderful sunlight radiation and you too would be strong and healthy forever.

And the Radium Girls, as they came to be called, these young women who painted their watch dials, they had no reason to think it was dangerous. So, not only did they play with it but they would, to make their brush points very fine, they would lip-point them, wet them in their mouth to get a sharp point. And what happened was that after, you know, really a couple of years, they started dying in these bizarre and mysterious ways - and horrible ways. Their jaws literally crumbled.

And, of course, the factory at first denied that it was anything involved with the factory, and then they suppressed some of the reports. But finally, public health officials started really looking at this and they discovered in fact that this radium was just breaking these bones to pieces within them.

RAZ: And none of this really would have been discovered without the energy that was thrown into this kind of forensic science by people like Norris and Gettler.

Ms. BLUM: And in fact, Norris and Gettler were involved directly in the Radium Girl case. Norris was a major public health crusader. He could hardly stand an issue that he couldn't crusade about, and they really went on to harangue the government that they had to stop giving this free rein to anyone who wanted to put radium into anything.

RAZ: Deborah Blum, how much do modern forensic investigators and pathologists owe to Gettler and Norris?

Ms. BLUM: I think they're owed an incredible debt. For one thing, Gettler and Norris were part of a movement really born in New York City to make forensics a respectable science, one in which scientists were specifically trained. There were no specific programs in forensic medicine until the 1930s. And they set some really good standards, too, because all of us know that forensics have to be completely meticulous.

In a situation where you have people's lives directly hanging in the balance, it has to be right on, and they were so good at that.

RAZ: That's Deborah Blum. She's the author of "The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York." She joined me from Madison, Wisconsin.

Deborah Blum, thank you so much.

Ms. BLUM: Thank you.

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