From a Pulitzer to poison

The Science Behind It

Someone who sets their hair on fire in an undergraduate science class might not be the first person you’d expect to write a book on science or become an expert on poison.

Pulitzer prize-winning author of The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York(PHB), Deborah Blum, has concocted both feats.

These days Blum likes to keep a safe distance between her hair and chemical experiments but she loves talking all things forensic — in particular poison.

The Science Behind It, a group of Science and Technology faculty, is bringing Blum to speak at Mount Royal's Roderick Mah Centre for Continuous Learning on Feb. 10.
Win free tickets and an autographed copy of PHB by visiting and post your answer (as a comment) to the question 'What's your poison?' Post the most interesting and creative answers you have that include one of the poisons mentioned on the MRU Facebook 'You Love CSI -— Now Meet Its Makers' event page.

Blum will be speaking about PHB and referring to several intriguing murder-by-poison cases as well as asking audience members to help her solve a real, life murder-by-poison case.

“It is the sort of book that is going to interest people interested in science, but also anyone wholikes history or even just a good story,” recalls Science Behind It, faculty member, Nathan Ackroyd.

“I was looking for someone to talk about chemistry at this event but she is someone who would be fun and be of interest to people who aren’t interested in chemistry at all.”

Blum, a science journalist by trade, who teaches science students how to write for the main stream at the University of Wisconsin says the field of science is full of fascinating people stories.

And that’s precisely what she wants to convey with her writing.

Hooked on poison

Poisoner's Handbook
Pulitzer Prize winning science writer, Deborah Blum will be at MRU talking about The Poisoner's Handbook.

“I’ve always had an odd fascination with poison,” explains Blum.

“I love the chemistry of it, the way poisons trick our bodies. They’re made of innocent things but mixed up in the right chemical soup they’re lethal. It’s a fascinating field.“

Blum says she started out writing PHB “with a few puzzle pieces” and mixed that with an affection for early twentieth century murder mysteries.

“I grew up reading my mother’s paperback mysteries like Agatha Christie. I love those creepy, cold-hearted murder mysteries and that has certainly influenced my work.

“I really wanted explain the amazing way in which poisons work and tell it like an early twentieth century mystery.

As it happens that was the period where scientists were literally inventing the field of forensic toxicology in North America.”

Speaking with Blum, it quickly becomes clear that she’s captivated with her topic and even more so with sharing about it as she rattles off poisonous tales, from recounting how a British woman poisoned her husband by putting the lethal plant foxglove in his salad, to the American government intentionally poisoning alcohol during the prohibition era.

PHB follows New York City's first chief medical examiner, Charles Norris, and his toxicologist, Alexander Gettler during the birth of forensic science in North America.

Blum’s report begins with a murder by cyanide being overturned because "toxicology was such a new science, it was awfully hard to educate and convince a jury simultaneously."

Over the next 20 years the duo set out to change that and in New York City of the early 1900’s they had more than enough opportunity.

Blum injects the book with tales ranging from gruesome to compelling while digging up unique cases where science played a vital role in the deciding factors — or should have.

Injecting Science into the main stream

Blum is a firm believer that science helps people in their everyday lives, whether in a criminal trial that promotes a safer society or by raising public awareness about poisonous plants.

Because of its everyday usefulness, she says it only makes sense to try and make science more relatable to the masses.

“Some of these shows are notoriously unrealistic at times but they do show science at work and integrated into everyday life so I think this is a good thing. It’s better than people thinking that science is locked up in some ivory tower and beyond our understanding, so I’m all for commercializing science a bit and making it more main stream.”

Steven Noble, Feb. 3, 2011