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The History, Science And Myth Of Poison

A new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York explores the power of poison to harm and to help.

The golden poison dart frog is credited as the most poisonous animal currently in existence. (AMNH)

The golden poison dart frog is credited as the most poisonous animal currently in existence. (AMNH)

Poison is somehow utterly captivating.  Start talking “double, double toil and trouble,” and we’re all ears.  Root of hemlock.  Poisoned entrails.  Slips of yew. Humankind has known for a long, long time that the natural world bubbles with poisons, far and wide.  Poison frogs.  Poisonous caterpillars.  Monkshood. Wolfsbane.  Castor bean. Belladonna. Oh, and aersenic of course.  And a whole lot more.  A new exhibit at the Museum of  Natural History unfurls poison in nature, myth, murder and in medicine.  This hour On Point:  the power of poison.

– Tom Ashbrook


Mark Siddall, curator at the American Museum of Natural History and the current exhibit, “The Power of Poison.” (@TheLeechGuy)

Deborah Blum, Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, professor and author of “The Poisoner’s Handbook; Murder and the Birth of Forensic Evidence in Jazz Age New York.” (@DeborahBlum)

From Tom’s Reading List

New York Daily News: Mark Siddall of the American Museum of Natural History points out poisons all around us — “Just because the city’s murder rate is on pace for a historic low doesn’t mean there aren’t dangers at every corner. Wherever you step in the Big Apple — from the gutter to the grocery store — you’re surrounded by potential poisons. It’s not cause to panic — but there’s reason to study up, according to American Museum of Natural History poison expert Mark Siddall. ‘We live in a pretty safe environment,’ says Siddall, who recently discovered a new species of venomous leech in the Amazon rain forest. His new exhibit, ‘The Power of Poison,’ opening Saturday, tracks toxins throughout history, from Cleopatra’s deadly snakebite to the possibility Napoleon died due to arsenic in his wallpaper.”

Bloomberg: Poison Show Inspired My Thanksgiving — “‘The Power of Poison’ takes us on a focused journey through the realms of myth, history, medicine, literature, murder and dementia starting with a glittering display of chocolates. In the interest of domestic harmony, resist leaving an opened box of Godiva on the coffee table within reach of the yappy canine belonging to your annoying sister-in-law. Like so many exhibitions at the museum, ‘The Power of Poison’ is entertaining, illuminating, inspirational and definitely spellbinding. Sit down and watch a film of a poisonous water snake take on a freaky Moray eel. It’s hard to know who to root for, but that toothy eel has my vote.”

Mother Jones: Study: Everything I Like to Ingest Has Arsenic — “In a study apparently designed by my friend for revenge on me, Dartmouth researchers found an association between bodily arsenic loads and consumption of the following substances I have swooned over in print (and enjoy in really life pretty much every chance I get): white wine, beer, Brussels sprouts, and ‘dark meat fish,’ a category that includes my beloved sardines. For people who drink 2.5 beers or glasses of white wine per day, they found, arsenic levels were 20 percent to 30 percent higher than for nondrinkers. Gulp. Or, perhaps better: Stop gulping.”

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  • Unterthurn

    Honestly which universities with pharmacology departments and drug design programs seriously investigate the potentials of nature? It’s not patentable so they don’t get funding. For example medicine seems to treat homeopathy or cannabis as a hoax, (which I’m not promoting it could be). If there is something that can cure a disease or successfully treat the symptoms that occurs in nature there needs to be a way to encourage more research. Changes are necessary to allow those who invest into research and development to profit from their discoveries even if they naturally occur. Patents eventually run out, too.

    • Rick Evans

      “Honestly which universities with pharmacology departments and drug design programs seriously investigate the potentials of nature? It’s not
      patentable so they don’t get funding.”


      Google natural products chemistry. It’s been a huge part of modern organic chemistry for more than a century. Also, there’s nothing to prevent patenting the compounding and dosing of a natural product as a drug ingredient. Also, isolating a natural product molecule gives chemists clues for designing patentable alternatives.

    • adks12020

      I could be wrong (certainly not an expert in pharmacology) but I’m pretty sure that a lot of synthetic drugs come about due to research on compounds that occur naturally. Scientists find the compounds in nature and then attempt replicate them in a lab. When they figure that out they patent the synthetic version.

  • b smart

    “Everything is poison, there is poison in everything. Only the dose makes a thing not a poison.” — Paracelsus

    • Jeff

      Except THC, you cannot OD on THC.

  • ToyYoda

    Is it possible to build up a tolerance to poison?

    Sometimes I see action films where the hero builds up a tolerance to a poison and that renders him immune from a villain/animal/monster.

    • Laura M. Shemick

      Yes, arsenic can be tolerated in steadily higher doses. I’m sure ther are others.

  • AliceOtter33

    The summer we moved to the very rural south, we discovered the “Cow Ant”, rumored to have a sting powerful enough to kill a cow. We learned the cow ant is, in fact, not an ant at all, but the wingless female version of a species of ground wasp.

    Though it will not kill a cow, it’s sting is apparently among the most painful of insect stings.

    It is truly alien looking – very large, very furry, fire-engine red and black striped – like something in a Dr. Seuss illustration.

  • dt03044

    When I heard the intro. I almost turned off the radio. Not really interested. I’m so glad I didn’t. This is fascinating. Thanks.

  • ToyYoda

    Remember Alexander Letvinenko, a former KGB agent living in England and critic of Putin. He was poisoned with radioactive Polonium; a substance so expensive to obtain that only powerful organizations like the CIA and KGB could to make.

    People would scoff at that the perpetrators (KGB) would use such an exotic substance whose very nature would implicate a handful of organizations capable of obtaining it.

    But, it was exactly what the KGB wanted to do. The KGB saved face by denying that they had a hand in it, but all ex-KGB agents got the message.

  • sam liu

    Is Garlic toxic

  • Jim

    Morphine presumably is a plant poison to deter insects. However, morphine in Humans and even other Mammals – creates Euphoria, as well as pain blockade. For horses, certain Opioids are used to create Euphoria so that when an invasive procedure is repeated, the animal is more cooperative! One species deterrent is another species pleasure.

  • brettearle

    Glad to hear that you’re doing OK….

    Are you able to share more of the specifics?

    Was this an `Alternative Treatment’ methodology–not normally sanctioned by hematologists or oncologists?

  • Andrew Page

    Wasn’t arsenic used as a primitive antibiotic? I remember in the movie ‘Out of Africa’ Meryl Streep going to Europe for treatment of syphilis with arsenic.

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