Last month, I read Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook , a really fascinating book about poison and murder in the early decades of the 20th century. Primarily, Blum looks at the development of forensic science and how the New York City coroner's office transitioned from being a place to stash political flunkies to being a scientific and effective player in crime solving. But there's another theme to the book as well—without science, there are many crimes that go not just unpunished, but completely unnoticed.
And this isn't just about women offing their husbands or villains chloroforming unsuspecting strangers. As the coroner's office developed standards of research and became an entity that served justice, the people who worked there became increasingly aware of the ways that the powerful profited off poisoning average workers and consumers. From government agents intentionally lacing alcohol with deadly adulterants during Prohibition, to factory owners knowingly exposing their workers to dangerous chemicals, Blum's book is full of examples of public corruption that was only brought to light because coroners took the time to apply the scientific method to investigating and cataloging deaths.
Some of these stories are ones I'd heard before, but had no idea the role that coroners and forensics had played in exposing the crime and providing evidence that ensured the people harmed received justice. For instance, Blum has a couple of posts on her blog right now about tetraethyl lead—the lead in "leaded" gasoline. This additive fixed an obnoxious mechanical problem in car engines, but at the price of sending factory workers to their deaths in straight jackets.
In October of 1924, workers in the TEL building began collapsing, going into convulsions, babbling deliriously. By the end of September, 32 of the 49 TEL workers were in the hospital; five of them died.
In response to the worker health crisis at the Bayway plant, Standard Oil suggested that the problem might simply be overwork. Unimpressed, the state of New Jersey ordered a halt to TEL production. And then the compound was so poorly understood, state health officials asked the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office to find out what had happened.
In 1924, New York had the best forensic toxicology department in the country; in fact, it had one of the few such programs period ... It took Gettler three obsessively focused weeks to figure out how much tetraethyl lead the Standard Oil workers had absorbed before they became ill, or crazy, or dead. “This is one of the most difficult of many difficult investigations of the kind which have been carried on at this laboratory,” Norris said, when releasing the results. “This was the first work of its kind, as far as I know. Dr. Gettler had not only to do the work but to invent a considerable part of the method of doing it.
Working with the first four bodies, then checking his results against the body of the last worker killed, who had died screaming in a straitjacket, Gettler discovered that TEL and its lead byproducts formed a recognizable distribution, concentrated in the lungs, the brain, and the bones. The highest levels were in the lungs suggesting that most of the poison had been inhaled; later tests showed that the types of masks used by Standard Oil did not filter out the lead in TEL vapors.
Ultimately, the reactions to this research didn't go far enough, fast enough—the workers got better safety equipment, but Americans were still being exposed to tetraethyl lead in gasoline though the 1980s. But, without science, there would have been even less protection than there already was. The work of the New York City medical examiners forced government and business to pay attention to something they preferred to ignore.
Maggie Koerth-Baker is the science editor at BoingBoing.net. She writes a monthly column for The New York Times Magazine and is the author of Before the Lights Go Out, a book about electricity, infrastructure, and the future of energy. You can find Maggie on Twitter and Facebook.