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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