The Fascinating American History of Toxicology

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The birth of toxicology could be attributed to two men, Charles Norris (1867–1935) and Alexander Gettler (1883–1968). Norris was New York’s first ever appointed Chief Medical Examiner, a role which replaced that of Coroner in identifying the cause of death. He changed the face of murder cases by analysing bodies of victims in order to find the secrets behind their demise. Gettler was his chief toxicologist, a man who worked tirelessly against the tide of public opinion to prove the importance of forensic science, particularly in the court room. He has been described as ‘the father of forensic toxicology in America’.


The documentary linked below, The Poisoner’s Handbook – The Standards for The Rest of The America, explains in depth how these two men became the pioneers of toxicology, changing the face of America. It is a fascinating watch, and shocking to realise that in such recent history, the population was largely oblivious to the science behind toxins. Thanks to Norris and Gettler we now have a road map for tracking down poisons that have entered the complex human anatomy. This means that we can hold individuals, companies and governments accountable for injury and death caused through these means.

Prohibition – Norris vs The Government

A particular issue that Norris and Gettler fought against was that of prohibition.

Prohibition in the United States was a nationwide constitutional ban on the sale, production, importation, and transportation of alcoholic beverages that remained in place from 1920 to 1933. ~ Wikipedia

The law passed in 1920 created criminals overnight. Selling alcohol was banned and shockingly, all alcohol required for industrial purposes (including cosmetics) was ‘denatured’. This meant that the government decided to poison alcohol required from industry so that it could not be consumed by the public. Denatured alcohol became known as ‘smoke’. Bootleggers distilled it in an attempt to remove the toxins, so that it could be consumed. But this was not an exact science by any means. Many traces of poison were left, and the government were using such a deadly cocktail of chemicals that it was really impossible to know exactly what was in a glass of ‘smoke’.gal-prohibition17-web-jpg

As the Chief Medical Examiner, Norris saw the victims of denatured alcohol first hand. He published records of the deaths by poisoning, in an attempt to persuade the government to end prohibition. But it was futile. They reacted by doubling the poison that was added to the denatured alcohol and included benzine for good measure. Their motivation was to scare people off once and for all – but of course people continued to drink it and die.

Many people produced their own alcohol, which also came with serious risks. Sawdust and wooden furniture was distilled, a process that creates a poison called Methanol. This is a highly toxic alcohol, which can cause blindness by destroying the optic nerve. After a few days of consumption, Methanol is lethal to most people.

Lead – Norris vs The Gasoline IndustryUnknown-5

In the 1920s, General Motors discovered that mixing Tetraethyl Lead into gasoline made their fuel far more efficient. The engines ran more smoothly, removing ‘knocks’ and increasing speed. It was advertised that ‘Ethyl’ made gasoline behave. It seemed ready to take over the gasoline industry, until employees working with the additive began to manifest signs of mental disturbance, giving the factory the nickname of ‘the loony gas building’. Employees began to be sectioned in asylums and dying, in what GM tried to claim was simply a coincidence. They even stated that the individuals were going mad due to working too hard.

Norris and Gettler were able to prove, using their forensic methods, that the bodies of the workers were riddled with lead. Despite the scientific proof, the oil industry is a strong player, and it was many years before lead petrol was finally banned.

Radium – Norris Fights For The Rights of Employees

Radium was thought of as a wonder-element in the early 1900s. It had been proven to shrink tumours in cancer patients and therefore embraced as a healthy, revitalising agent. It was sold as health-injections, and added to moisturisers and makeup. As bizarre as this may sound to us now, it could be a stark premonition of botox – a known poison that people choose to inject into their faces on a regular basis for the purpose of beauty too.Unknown-6

In the First World War a company began to use radium in paint, to create glow in the dark watch faces. Many women were employed to hand paint the details, it is thought that they dipped the paint brush between their lips to get a fine point on the tip. Many even ‘played’ around with the radium paint – creating glow in the dark nails, make-up and hair decoration. They felt there was nothing to fear from a product that was hailed as health-giving. That was until a few years had passed and they began to fall sick. The first victim was Amelia Megia, who suffered a painful death, where (the documentary claims), her jaw virtually fell off. Over the months that followed, more and more girls suffered the same fate, displaying the same symptoms. The company denied any liability, and stated that it was not the radium, simply the company’s own generosity at employing ‘disabled’ individuals.

Thankfully Gettler was asked to examine the remains of Amelia Megia, 5 years after she has been buried. He was able to measure strong radioactivity on her bones even after all of this time. The company still continued to deny responsibility, and many more women suffered the same fate over the years, as the radium slowly crumbled their bones.

Still Gettler and Norris were slowly building up the credibility of their forensic science and the public was slowly starting to listen.


As America entered the Great Depression, the Chief Medical Examiner began to see another cause of death rising in his records. That of self poisoning. People were in complete despair and suicide was increasingly common. A substance that was commonly used was thallium, readily available in pesticides at the time.At-right-is-the-first-scientifically-trained-medical-examiner-for-New-York-City-Charles-Norris-and-his-chief-toxicologist-Alexander-Gettler


The documentary offers an interesting glimpse into a difficult time in America’s history. Norris and Gettler fought huge adversaries in order to raise the profile of forensic science to a place where it is now respected and revered. I feel we should take some comfort in this. While it can seem that there is no hope in reversing the tide of industry, corporation and government’s attempts to poison us and stuff us down, it can actually change in a generation. It just takes a few determined individuals and a lot of ‘truth’.images-6

We have a lot to thank these people for! What do you think?

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