Deborah Blum – Murder and Chemistry in Jazz Age New York

April 23, 2010

For many of us, chemistry is something we remember with groans from high school. Periodic Table of the Elements—what a pain to memorize, and what was the point, anyway?

So how do you take a subject like chemistry and make it exciting, intriguing, and compelling?

With her new book The Poisoner’s Handbook, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Deb Blum has done just that. Blum takes a page from the "CSI" franchise, and moves that familiar narrative of crime, intrigue, and high tech bad-guy catching back into the early days of the 20th century. There, in jazz age New York, she chronicles the birth of forensic chemistry at the hands of two scientific and public health pioneers—the city’s chief medical examiner Charles Norris, and his chemistry whiz side-kick Alexander Gettler.

And while chronicling their poison-sleuthing careers, Blum also teaches quite a bit of science. Her book is a case study in science popularization, and one we should all be paying close attention to.

Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer-prize winning science writer and has been a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 1997. Prior to that, she spent over a decade working as a science writer for the Sacramento Bee, where her series on ethical issues in primate research, “The Monkey Wars,” won the 1992 Pulitzer.

The Monkey Wars also became a book, and since then Blum has written numerous others: A Field Guide for Science Writers, Sex on the Brain, Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection, and Ghost Hunters: William James and the Scientific Search for Life After Death.

Blum has also written for numerous publications including The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times. She was president of the National Association of Science Writers from 2002-2004, and currently serves on advisory boards to the Council for Advancement of Science Writing and the World Federation of Science Journalists.