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TOXICOLOGY

   
Poisons of various descriptions were commonly used in ancient times by unscrupulous people to kill their enemies. Even today, mere mention of the word poisoning is enough to conjure up in the minds of most people ideas of diabolical infamy. No doubt this is due to what they have read about the subject in history. Numerous killers in the past set out to achieve their evil designs by using poison to dispose of those who stood in their way. The records over the ages are replete with accounts of this kind. By its very nature, poison is premeditated and secret- the real horror lies not so much in those poisonings that are discovered but in those which remain undetected.
This section deals with toxicology i.e. the science of detection of poisons.

The study of poisons in all its aspects is known as toxicology. You would be surprised to know that this word has an unusual origin. It comes from the Greek word toxon which means a bow for shooting arrows. The word toxeuma meant an arrow. Since in ancient times, poisons were often used on the tips of arrows to render them more lethal, the word toxicos came to refer to such a poison. From this we get the word toxicology.
     

Even the great Italian Renaissance man Leonardo the Vinci (1452-1519) experimented with poisons.
Leonardo invented the so-called technique of "passages", in which an animal was killed by an injection of poison and the essential organs that had been impregnated with the poison, such as the liver, spleen and lungs were then removed. An extract was prepared from these organs and administered to another animal and the process was repeated. With each "passage" the strength of the poison was supposed to increase. He also studied the procedure in plants. In an effort to produce most innocuous looking poisons such as fruits, he injected the bark of certain fruit trees with potassium cyanide. The idea was that it would rise up along the conducting system and be incorporated in the fruits. The resulting fruit were of course poisonous, but contained only small amounts of cyanide. They had to be eaten for weeks before they could cause death. Even the Ancient Egyptians experimented with poisons. The  Ebers Papyrus written by the Egyptians it is one of the oldest medical documents available. It was found in the 19th century, between the legs of a mummy in a tomb near Luxor which is a town on east bank of river Nile in upper Egypt. It was advertised for sale, and acquired by Professor Ebers in 1872; hence the name Ebers papyrus. The papyrus is dated about 1550 BC, and it reveals many customs, traditions and practices of the ancient Egyptian doctors. It describes over 800 recipes, many containing recognizable and identified poisons-for example, hemlock, aconite, opium and some of the toxic heavy metals such as lead and antimony. Some of the pharaohs are known to have experimented with poisons, perhaps for practical matters of government and State. Similarly the mythology and literature of classic Greek history also shows a considerable knowledge of poisons. In the Odyssey of Homer, Helen is described as discreetly introducing into the wine of Telemachus and Menelaus a drug that acted as a powerful anodyne. An anodyne as you know is a drug which relieves pain. In Greek legend, Hecate was knowledgeable about aconite, Medea was familiar with the properties of colchicum and Hercules is said to have met his end from wearing a shirt after his wife had impregnated it with poison. The first professional treatment of toxicology begins to appear in various Greek writings in around 3rd to 4th century BC. Thus Theophrastus, who lived from 370 to 286 BC, a pupil of Aristotle, included numerous references to poisonous plants in his work De Historia Plantarum. Nicander of Colophon (204-138 BC) wrote two treatises, which are the most ancient works devoted entirely to poisons. One was on snake poisons, the other on plant poisons, including opium, henbane, poisonous fungi, colchicum, aconite and conium. Nicander divided poisons into those that killed quickly and those that killed slowly and he recommended emetics in the treatment of poisoning, a recommendation which is valid even today. Modern toxicology has emerged from the dark, murky world of secret poisoners, fantastic antidotes and so on. The last 150 years have seen great progress in the analysis of poisons. Today, with modern techniques and instrumentation, the most minute traces of alien compounds can be detected, not only from tissues and organs at post-mortem, but also in biological samples such as blood and urine collected during life. The science of antidotes has also become more scientific. We have moved from the age of Mithridatium, bezoars and Terra Sigillata to the age of physiological antidotes and chelating agents. Several medical journals are devoted solely to the study of toxicology. Toxicology is taken up by several promising young students as their career. It is no longer the murky, shady, crime-infested vocation of the poisoners; instead it has become a true science pursued by brilliant investigators. Toxicology is a promising career for any young scientist

 


Dr Anil Aggarwal's forensic Page

Gives information of poisons in non-technical language. Very useful for lay people, but also provides important insights to experts. Included in the site are articles that Dr. Anil has written explaining the basics of forensic toxicology in a simple language which is easily understandable. The stories also include interesting snippets  of information related to the topic.

IMPORTANT NOTE: THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED BY THE AUTHOR AND MAY NOT BE REPOSTED, REPRINTED OR OTHERWISE USED IN ANY MANNER WITHOUT THE WRITTEN PERMISSION OF THE AUTHOR

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