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Book Club: “The Poisoner’s Handbook” by Deborah Blum

Posted on : Mar-11-2014 | By : John | In : Book Club

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Our March book is The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum.

The book tells the story of how corruption and incompetence in the New York City coroner’s office lead, during a brief period of reformist state and city government, to appointment of a qualified, scientifically trained chief medical examiner, Dr. Charles Norris, head of pathology at Bellevue Hospital. Tammany Hall soon regained control of the city government, but not before Norris hired a competent staff, including forensic chemist Alexander Gettler. Norris and Gettler had very different backgrounds, Norris being a descendent of wealth and privilege, Gettler the child of poor Hungarian immigrants who worked his way through college, but they worked together to establish criminal forensics as a scientific discipline.

They fought constant battles with criminals (mostly poisoners), corrupt politicians (who tried to regain control and starved the Medical Examiner’s Office of resources), overzealous and ignorant police and prosecutors (who sometimes ignored the evidence to go with their hunches and charged innocent people while ignoring real crimes), corrupt industries (which added lead to gasoline and poisoned their customers and employees with leaky gas pipes, radium and worse), and the biggest public health crisis of the 1920s, Prohibition.

The Poisoner’s Handbook tells the story of Norris and Gettler, organized around the various poisons they detected and dealt with. The popularity of poisons seemed to come in waves, as detection methods became more sensitive and reliable, poisoners would move on to other, less detectable poisons. (Or maybe this perception is just an artifact of the way the book is organized.)

The work of Norris and Gettler ultimately led to the vast array of forensic techniques used by the technicians on the various CSI programs, NCIS‘s Abby Sciuto, Law and Order‘s Drs. Rogers and Warner (both New York City Assistant Chief Medical Examiners), and the staff of the Jeffersonian Forensic Anthropology unit on Bones. Important as prime time entertainment is, their work also lead to modern real-world forensics.

Several prominent reviews of the book on Amazon downgrade it due to very poor chemistry. Two of the first 3 reviews (as Amazon listed them for me, YMMV) gave it one star and the reviewers claim to be chemists. Each gives a long bullet list of errors. Several commenters say those errors do not appear in their versions of the book; I checked my recent Kindle edition and most do not appear in my book either. Some of the rest appear to be quibbles about style rather than substance, or willful misreading of slightly ambiguous statements. Can you find any substantive errors in the science or history?

Join us to discuss this book on Saturday, March 22 at 3 PM in our usual meeting place, Harvard’s Northwest Science Building, 52 Oxford Street, Cambridge. Bring your appetite and, if you wish, a snack to share. Also optional, you can RSVP on our Facebook event page. Remember, the first gratuitous Star Trek reference always receives a complimentary, non-violent, phaser blast.

Mary will be leading an online discussion of the book the next day (March 23) at the Skepchick Book Club. Drop by and make all those insightful comments you forgot to make at the meeting, or if you live too far away to attend in person. (But it’s much more fun to be there!)

I apologize for being very late with this post, but you still have time to read it before the meeting. It’s fairly quick paced, and should only take 3 or 4 hours to read. It’s well worth it if you enjoyed The Killer of Little Shepherds”, or like science history or the Borgia family or murder mysteries!

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