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

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