Poison, forensics, and how science protects us

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. Read the rest