‘King of Poisons’ recounts the fascinating history of arsenic

Correction: An earlier version of this column, about a book that ­details the history of arsenic, incorrectly referred to the peasants who used arsenic as a beauty and health aid in the 1850s as Syrian. The peasants were in Styria, which is now part of Austria. This version has been corrected.


Arsenic, sometimes used to make medicine, was once kept in ridged bottles to guard against accidental consumption. (GETTY IMAGES)
June 10, 2013
POISON
A history of arsenic, from beauty aid to murder weapon
‘King of Poisons,’ by John Parascandola

Odorless, colorless and tasteless, with gradual, cumulative effects, arsenic was long considered the perfect poison. But as a new book reveals, this quintessential murder weapon was also much more. “King of Poisons” by John Parascandola chronicles the fascinating history of this chemical compound, which has figured prominently in literature from Flaubert to Agatha Christie.

Parascandola, who teaches courses on modern biology and poisons at the University of Maryland, shows the role of arsenic in shaping events. The compound was a popular method of assassination in Renaissance Italy and France, and there is speculation that famous leaders, including Cleopatra and Napoleon, died as a result of arsenic poisoning, he writes. Arsenic was also used in Europe to kill rats carrying fleas infected with bubonic plague and as a cure for diseases such as malaria and syphilis.

In the 18th century, it served as a pigment for paint, wallpaper, artificial flowers and clothing. (There are reports that some people became sick and died from overexposure to paints and flaking wallpaper.) It also once served as a beauty aid: Styrian peasants in the 1850s claimed arsenic gave them clear complexions and made it easier to breathe at high altitudes. It once was used in embalming fluid because of its preservative properties, and its fatigue-fighting abilities gave it a reputation as an effective sexual stimulant. (Note: Do not try this at home.)

In the 1940s, the compound became a popular additive in chicken feed and has been used in chemical warfare. Until 2004, it was a preservative in pressure-treated wood. In the form of arsenic trioxide, it can be used to treat acute promyelocytic leukemia, the book says.

“Whether as a poison or a medicine, a pesticide or a preservative . . . arsenic has been viewed as a blessing and a curse,” Parascandola writes. “Of course, it is neither, merely a chemical element. How we use it determines whether it helps or harms.”


Actor Morgan Freeman hosts new season of the Science Channel’s “Through the Wormhole.” (David Johnson/Science Channel)
TELEVISION
On ‘Wormhole’: Aliens, mind-hacking and the future of human evolution
‘Through the Wormhole,’ Wednesdays on Science Channel

How do aliens think? Can our minds be hacked? Will sex become extinct?

These are some of the questions the new season of Science Channel’s “Through the Wormhole” will try to answer.

The program, hosted by Morgan Freeman, returns to prime time this month for its fourth season, with nine episodes on subjects including astrophysics, quantum mechanics, string theory and astrobiology.

The show delves into the realm of the seemingly impossible. For example, it highlights scientists studying animals and the evolution of human language to give insight into how alien minds might function. It also shows scientists who have figured out how to “hack” the human brain, inserting ideas into people’s minds as they sleep and injecting emotions by stimulating the brain.

And, according to one episode, the need for sex for procreation may soon be moot. “Technology is on the brink of making children from two fathers, or two mothers. Marine biologists are using mechanical wombs to birth live sharks and humans could be next,” the program’s creators say. “We may soon cure diseases by making children with more than two genetic parents, or even give our offspring genes from the animal kingdom.”

Wednesday’s episode will focus on whether humans have any chance of surviving the death of the sun. In all likelihood, we won’t — but the show posits that “reaching a second Earth across the galaxy could be possible thanks to a radical new propulsion technology from man-made black holes.”

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