This is point of inquiry for Friday, April 20 3rd, 2010.
Welcomed the point of inquiry.
I’m Chris Mooney point of inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values in public affairs and at the grassroots. In recent shows, we’ve been staring hard down a particular rabbit hole that I like to call the science policy intersection. We’ve been asking questions like how do you get science to translate into good decision making? How do you counter misinformation campaigns around issues like vaccination and climate change? How do you prepare for a scary future of possible geo engineering in which we might have to damage the planet in order to save it? But in the end, good decision making about science also requires a public that understands it. That means that efforts at science, communication and science popularization are absolutely crucial. So today’s show, I want to explore a truly stellar case of explaining science to the public in an engaging, entertaining way. 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 this one and make it exciting, intriguing, compelling with her new book, The Poisoner’s Handbook? Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Deb Lumb has done precisely that. Indeed, Bloem 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 she chronicles the birth of forensic medicine and teaches quite a bit of science along the way. But I’ll let her tell more of that story herself once I introduce her. 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 Platzer. The Monkey Wars also became a book. And since then, Bloem has written numerous others as well, including a field guide for science writers. Sex on the Brain Love Lovett Gun Park. Harry Harlow in The Science of Affection and Ghost Hunters. William James and the Scientific Search for a Life after Death. Blome 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 to 2004 and currently serves on advisory boards to the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and the World Federation of Science Journalists. Deb Bluhm welcomed a point of inquiry.
Thanks. It’s great to be here.
Well, I immediately wanted to have you on the show after you visited our Knight Science Journalism Seminar at M.I.T. and you told us about this great book that I’ve now read, The Poisoner’s Handbook. And in particular, I was intrigued by this ingenious literary device you’d come up with to popularize the otherwise potentially very dull science of chemistry. So I guess first I’ll ask you then, how did you stumble upon this great story of Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler in their scientific exploits to catch poisoners and protect public health in the roaring roaring 20s, New York?
Well, this is this is not a method I would advise to issue. But I actually started with the film backwards. I wanted to write about poisons and the very dull science of chemistry, which I happen to like a lot. And so I got a book contract to write a book, a very open ended book contract to write about poisons.
And then I spent about four or five months hysterically trying to figure out how I was going to do this and what really who really could be the sort of hero or narrative or a world changing event at the center of this story. I wanted to tell and which I knew I wanted to explore poisons. And after digging through countless books and scientific papers from early in the early 20th century, I literally fell over Alexander Gettler, who was the first forensic toxicologist ever attached to a U.S. city and is now considered the father of American forensic toxicology.
And once I stumbled into him. The story grew from there and I started realizing how good it was.
Well, and of course, poisons. You explain the book. Poisons go far, far back in history and arsenic is one of the favorites. And it was called inheritance powder. But the birth of science changed the whole dynamic. Can you talk about how a, quote, deadly cat and mouse game grew up between scientists and poisoners? Could you explain?
Yeah, that was a fascinating idea to me because poisoners, some really interesting killers. You know, they don’t kill. They’re not impulsive. Killers are always premeditated because you don’t just say, well, you know, I’d like to get rid of you and someone go research arsenic and figure out the proper dose, get away with that in an impulsive way. So I knew that I knew cause and in fact, found this pattern in which in the 19th century, particular poison was very widespread and easy to get away with. And you see this in a first tentative response by a chemist to say, okay, we’re going to figure out a way to deal with this. And as they actually grab on to a poison, known arsenic was one of the first U.S. poisonous, shifting away from poisons that scientists can find and deliberately going to plant poisons which are hard to detect and then into the 20th century. When you have this rise of industrial chemistry, you see that shift again. So it is this game in which poisoners are making a move and then the chemist or the toxicologist come up and make a move. And it makes a fascinating kind of look at how one drives the other. They’re very closely related and that, in fact.
So people were literally getting away with murder and then. Scientists come in. And would you say that are heroes? They invented forensics. They were the CSI guys of the 1920s or, you know.
I would love to say they invented the whole thing. But forensic was not even a term that was used in the United States really until the 1930s. There was forensic medicine in Europe and in the United States where this whole idea of using science to catch a killer whale came much later. It started creeping along in the late 19th century and it was called medical jurisprudence. And so when you have this MoMA, it’s actually one of those moments in history where a small number of people can make an enormous difference because everything is so unformed. And so in 1918, when Charles Norris comes in New York and published a report that you’re saying that poisons could operate with impunity. And he and Alex yeah, Sandor Getler came in at the right moment and took advantage of it. And they literally did create in the United States the start of forensic forensic medicine. North and Getler were both involved in the first forensic science training program in the United States. And that wasn’t until 1934. And Getler, as you watch him work with chemicals, does in fact do a huge amount to invent forensic toxicology, period. It existed, but he moved it so far forward. I actually had someone I was talking to a British researcher, and he said, you know, I’ve always thought of for the British forensic sciences being so far out of the U.S., but here here we weren’t. Here you really see the American for the first time taking forensics and turning it into an international power kind of science.
And, you know, it wasn’t easy for them to do because in the book, you detail how Charles Norris, who was the chief medical examiner of New York, he had to face down city corruption. He had to face down a dysfunctional medical system. He had to spend his own money a lot of times to keep his office functioning. And then he had Mayor LaGuardia saying that he was corrupt and she had to fight off those sorts of charges.
He was he was all so interesting because he here at one hand, you have the city say, boy, poisoners operate with impunity. We have to do something about this. And then you have the city really throughout Norris’s tenure, undermining practically everything he did. And some of that was that throughout this period, which is seen through the Prohibition Jazz Age era in a largely New York is in the control of Tammany Hall, the party machine. They really resisted this professional appointment, interfered with a lot of things that they’d been able to do. You know, sell death certificates to wealthy families. So enable and get kickbacks from funeral home directors. And so his budgets constantly getting cut to shreds. There was one may or even wouldn’t even pay for the clocks in the office. And Norris, fortunately, came from a very wealthy and old U.S. family, the Norriss of Norristown, Pennsylvania. And he used his money all the time. He paid salaries. He bought equipment. They replace the clocks. And I think actually LaGuardia I was this is personal for me because I always kind of admired LaGuardia as a reformist mayor. But I think that LaGuardia was a big disappointment to me. You know, he just had a knee jerk. Everyone who was in office when I came in was corrupt. He’d gone for Norah’s erroneously. You know, some of his colleagues apologized, but he never did.
And then Norris died when LaGuardia was the one office and LaGuardia didn’t even bother to go to his funeral. You know, he was less perfect than I hoped he was, I guess.
Well, Norris was the leader of the office. But then we’ve talked about Getler and he’s sort of the quiet, media shy chemistry whiz who made a lot of it possible and conducted, it sounds like, from the book, some pretty ingenious experiments to figure out how to detect poisons and determine the cause of death for a particular person. What do you think was the best story of him figuring out a way to do that?
Well, in a big sense, he was the first person in the world to figure out how to tell if you were drunk at time of down. I just lied.
He went through literally went through six thousand brains because this is not this nice, dry chemistry of today with, you know, the little smudge of a chemical on something you feed into a gas chromatograph. This was big, slushy, wet chemistry. And he went through six thousand brains until he could figure out how to tell very precisely if someone was intoxicated. It kind of death. And he had to design the machinery for it. And this was a device eight feet long. They eventually had to turn over a whole floor of their building or a whole win to just this, you know, telling of someone was drunk at time of death. But the other amazed. Things he was the first person to really look at.
Anesthesia in the brain during surgery and how you could tell if someone was incapacitated at time of death. They did the fundamental work on cyanide. He sat up at night devising all these new apparatus and experiments. And there was one and I don’t even think I have this in the book in which there was a baby then who had been at a hospital and just before he went home. This kid, poor kid, was only, you know, several months old. The nurse there decided she would just give him a good polishing up with an anti lice lotion, which was loaded with a toxic camas Carl. And it was an insecticide. And the baby died and no one knew why this perfectly healthy baby had suddenly dropped dead. And the amount of the chemical was so small, the killer literally. He sat up at night and devised a machine that would actually get like drops of fluid out that they could distill. And that was how they figured out how they could do it. He was a genius that they were. So it’s sort of like this amazing conjunction of two really good planets. Right. But Geller was a chemical genius.
And it was a he also created the first I read in the book Scientific Scale of Intoxication. So he sort of the father of the breathalyzer in some way.
That’s right. That’s right. The guy who invented the breathalyzer was rala Haga. I think he was at Indiana.
He called it the drunk o meter, but he built on the fact that they had an existing scale in which you could tie chemistry in the body to level of intoxication. And, you know, I mean, one of the things to me that’s so interesting about this is we take all of this for granted now. You know, the fact that we can detect intoxication, the fact that we you know, someone dies of chemical exposure often, not always, but usually we can tease out the chemistry from tissues and blood.
We can solve crimes working with scientists. Oh, look, none of this existed to any real degree until this particular time period in New York and elsewhere. Cops didn’t know how to work with scientists and didn’t even want to. So it was an amazing, transformative period.
Well, I’d like to alert our listeners that Deb LUMS new book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, which we’ve been discussing, is available through our Web site, Point of Inquiry Gorgas. You should go over there and order yourself one now. Deb, I understand you yourself wanted to be a chemist. This is innocense finding your way back to the subject you loved.
Yes. And, you know, I am really enjoying the chemistry side of my life right now. I did start out. I was the chemistry major at Florida State and barely survived it. And I think it’s fair to say my lab partners barely survived to be there. I once had they had to evacuate the lab once. And I created a lovely poisonous cloud. And I set my hair on fire high earth in the 70s.
And I had those long braids which was clicking away at a Bunsen burner without actually realizing it. And so after a few incidents like that, I thought, no, there’s no way I’m not going to live to see the age of 20. And so I decided I would write about science instead. And I’ve and I’ve kind of, you know, done a lot of things that interested me. But this return to chemistry has really been fun for me. You know, in doing the book and trying to make people see how fundamental and beautiful and sinister chemistry is. You know, I’ve been doing a blog which is kind of chemistry and culture and history, and I’ve been really enjoying that. So, yes, I would like to persuade the world that chemistry isn’t dull and boring at all.
Well, I think you’ve made a pretty good attempt at that because you’ve embedded a lot of basic information about how chemistry works into a narrative that people want to turn the pages of. And I find it notable that each chapter of your book is named after some chemical substance like, say, wood, alcohol or chloroform. And then in each chapter, you give a little lesson about the molecule and its structure and why it has this particular nasty effect.
I do. I you know, and that was I was very proud of myself for that. You know, I’ve have not only the name of the poison, but the chemical formula and try to explain it. I actually had wanted to put chemistry.
This will show you what a geek I am at heart. But I had wanted to have chemistry, actually, in the book subtitle. And so the original title of the book that I had come up with was The Poisoner’s Handbook at, you know, A True Story of Murder Chemistry in Jazz Age, New York. And my publisher came back to me and said, our sales force says no one’s going to buy a book if you put chemistry in the subtitle. And it was. The one thing I got, really, I’m a fairly easy go in person, but I got really pissy about that subtitle, my editor in chief had to call me up and say, here’s not going to win this one. So that the subtitle Teitel ended up being Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age, New York.
Well, when you think about a book topic, is a science writer book like this. Do you think scientific subject first or do you think where’s the story?
You know, that’s a really good question. And if you looked at all the books I’ve done, you know, I’ve done primate research, the biology of gender differences, the science of love and affection.
You know, I took a spin into the science, William James and the science of the supernatural. You would say, you know, does this woman even have a coherent plan?
It’s the subtext is I’m really interested in where sciences society intersect. So I tend to sort of drift to things in which there is moments in which I can say that science is changing the way society or culture divide defines something and culture is really pushing it. Science. And so there’s all of that more recently. And my last three books, you know, I’ve gotten more interested in doing this kind of subversive what I think of as a subversive narrative, which is that I want to tell you a real what I hope is going to be a good story. And I’m going to subversively try to make you think about an aspect of science that I find fascinating. So it can go either way for me with the ghost book. It was just I actually just had read something William James had written about supernatural science. And I thought, that is such an amazing scientific report. I would love to look at that further with this one. It was the other way around. I loved chemistry. I love poise, and I want to write a book about it. So, you know, I’m not consistent.
Well, I just I think the point of popularizing science, though, is you’ve got to put the science inside of the narrative or else you pretty much you’re going to not have anybody pay attention to the science.
I agree. And, you know, it’s interesting because I’m really been thinking about, you know, the different ways that you reach an audience and that we as classic science writers, which I, you know, have been for much of my life, traditional science writers, you know, tend to tend to focus on a fairly narrow, maybe two narrow audience sometimes so that we’re you know, we’re writing to people who are science aware, science literate already in the conversation. And it’s been really interesting to me recently to think about how might I engage other audiences, people who I really would like to kind of seduce into thinking about science issues and and maybe have them creep up a little on their science literacy meter.
Right. So I also I’m doing a blog for a true crime blog. It’s called Women in Crime Ink, and it’s mostly prosecutors and profilers and true crime writers. And the last one I did for them was called Chemistry of Murder.
So I you know, I’m just trying to sneak a little bit of it in there and make people who wouldn’t normally think, oh, I’d love to read about chemistry, take a look at it.
Yeah, I think this is a fundamental lesson. And if I could get on my soapbox for a moment, do you know the name Alexander von Humboldt? Yeah.
The great explorer. He spent five years he was the first European to really get to explore South American, the early 19th century. And the most famous thing he did on the trip to the European public was to climb the Andean peak of Chimborazo in 1882, and it was thought to be the highest peak in the world. And he reached an altitude of 19000 hundred eighty six feet, which was then a world record. And the news gets back to Europe and he becomes a huge celebrity. But Humboldt’s wasn’t interested in being just sort of a celebrity. He thought he was a scientist. And so when he writes about his travels, he writes his personal travel narrative. The thing is three thousand nine hundred twenty seven pages long, many, many volumes, including, you know, embedded scientific papers within it.
And he never gets dimensioning, Chimborazo, because he’s just filling the book up with all of his observations, all of his science. And he he loses the story completely. He buries his best material.
That’s a great example.
So you’ve done the opposite. Congratulations. Let me go over to the online forums because we’ve got a question there for you. One important thing for the new science of forensic chemistry was that it had to become credible or acceptable. And one of the ways that happened was, as we get from your book in the courtroom, if you could win convictions based on this science. So we have a question from Doug Smith who asks, what were some of the techniques that the first forensic scientists had to use to convince ignorant judges and juries? Are there any lessons there we can take away for designing courses on critical thinking for children or adults?
That’s a really good question. Early on. And this would be particularly in the pre getler kind of days. A lot of times scientists would do experiments in the court. And do something that you literally could not do today. They would kill animals to demonstrate the effect of a poison and a murderer locked up one trial in which the scientists persuaded the jury of his case. He killed a cat. There was another one where they poisoned frogs with strict nine. You know, this was such a new idea and so little known and people trusted scientists so little that almost they felt that they had to do the material work. Later, when you get into the 1920s and you see the sort of rise of the professional scientists, you see these guys, you know, beginning to be able to explain things more, diagram them out, and you get much more of this kind of upright witness of fact. The other thing truthfully, and this I think we’re on shaky or have some effect now, is that people began to believe that scientists really didn’t know how to do this. And there was a point in Gobbler’s career where people, you know, defense attorneys would complain that he would just go in and say this is the way it was and that would be the conviction. I tend to think and I’ve covered trials in which counties have testified that there’s a couple of things that I think are really important lessons for today. One is the old standard boring thing that this has to be really meticulous science. Right. There have been a lot of scandals in labs that detract from the credibility. We need to really work on careful trading in the laboratory and making sure that those guys maintain their credibility throughout. We need to better fund laboratories because a lot of the problem is that these guys are completely overwhelmed. They can’t keep up. They’re under huge pressure to deal with their backlog. And so you occasionally get people who still upset by fudging. And there’s an ongoing field right now in San Francisco that is about that same thing. The other thing is, is twofold. One is, you know, we can’t solve public education in the courtroom anymore, that you can solve it by writing a really good newspaper story. You know, I’ve become a big advocate for rethinking the way we do science education, period. And so that we’re not just, you know, training future scientists and filtering out those losers who aren’t going to be scientists in my son’s high school. There’s both math, chemistry for the future scientists of America and chemistry and community for those who don’t want to be scientists, but can go really look at chemistry of the kitchen, chemistry in local lags, chemistry and local air chemistry in your daily life. I’d love to see us get to the point that that was kind of a standard part of American education. Then I think we would not have, you know, dopey judges who don’t understand the science and jurors who are so afraid of it. You know, they can’t make out commonsense between competing scientific points of view.
We have a long way to go. But I think that popular science books like yours definitely help. I want to talk about Prohibition because that’s the background in which all of this is happening. In fact, one of the most important chemistry lessons you teach in your book is the difference between ethyl and methyl alcohol. And it’s just a matter of different kinds of bonds and molecules. But it has huge implications for people’s lives and their very survival during this era.
Yes, I was that I mean, that was all new to me. So I was really fascinated by it.
But ethyl alcohol is the alcohol of beer and wine, and I include myself in the ethyl alcohol fan club. Methyl alcohol used to be just called wood alcohol because of the primary way to make it was a destructive distillation of lumber. And they actually used to be wood factories along the East Coast until they used up too much of the forest thing to make methyl alcohol, which was an industrial alcohol. This thing that goes into the alcohols that sterilize instruments and into fuels. And what you happened in Prohibition is two things. One is they had learned how to synthesize what alcohol, methanol. And because of prohibition, which effectively, you know, blocks trade and commerce in engrain or ethyl alcohol, bootleggers were forced to turn to industrial alcohol supplies and try to redoes still them and get some of the contaminants thrown. Most of these industrial alcohols just hadal or grain alcohols with a little meth mix then to make them unpalatable or some other thing that made them taste bad. And so the bootleggers would take these and try to get back to the basic Astle. And one of the things I wrote about in my book was the way that the government then tried to undermine bootlegging.
By super poisoning that industrial alcohol in Getler, Nori’s both knew they both felt that prohibition was stupid and deadly, to be blunt about it. But in your book, the government is sort of one more poisoner.
It is. You know, I said to the government was the greatest mass poisoner of the 1920s, which in fact, it was what Getler North had been crusading against. Prohibition is just really bad policy from the beginning.
And they started to see what alcohol deaths almost as fall as soon as the 18th Amendment passed. People started putting in their little backroom stills and distilling. They distilled everything, you know, dust, sawdust, bits and chips and bark and wood. I mean, there there were some really poisonous homebrewed. But in addition, as prohibition continues and it’s clearly a failure and people are drinking like 30000 species in Manhattan, people are drinking illegally all over the country. And the bootleggers, Keystart really stealing industrial alcohol. The government in nineteen twenty six passed a policy requiring industrial alcohol makers to sloup or poison it to make it up to 10 percent pure poisoned, put in much more methyl alcohol, which is really a bad alcohol, mostly because of the way you metabolize it. We metabolize it into formaldehyde and formic acid and formic acid, chews up your optic nerve and formaldehyde kills you. And so they put all these poison into the industrial alcohol supplies. The bootleggers can’t get this out right. There are fancy chemists that the bootleggers have hired, can’t figure out how to get all this poison out, but they go ahead and sell it anyway. And people are just dropping dead. I mean, it started immediately and well. I mean, Nora was running a national campaign about this. He wrote an article on a popular magazine called Our Essay and Extermination. He, you know, went all over the country essentially informing people. And you see in the newspapers of the 1920s, the U.S. government being called the Borza government. Everyone knew that the government was doing this. And the government’s response was, well, these people are breaking the law and they’re skuzzy alcoholics. So too bad for them. It was really a shameful period.
And this is something intriguing about your book that I noticed as well, because on the one hand, Norris and Gettler are helping the police to capture murderers, but at the same time, they start developing into something else, more like what we would think of as public health crusaders. So they’re worried about, you know, the chemistry of poisons delivered to kill someone, but also the chemistry of toxic liquors, the chemistry of radium in consumer products, the chemistry of tetraethyl lead, which they get banned in New York. So they’re essentially they start working on environmental exposures once they ahead of their time.
That is a wonderful point because they did see that they know North was the first person in New York anyway to start a yearly analysis of death and causes of death. And then you started seeing like the big insurance companies were all like on his subscription list. They want to look at his analysis. And so he would actually go and he would say, you know, what are the primary causes of death? And he would pop poisons, carbon monoxide intoxication, Ray, you know. And and so some of that was that he was really driven to try to bring down what he saw as unnecessary deaths and murders. You know, in this definition that we’re talking about a homicides and unnecessary deaths. Right. Doesn’t shouldn’t have happened. But people who were killed by exposure to chemical compounds because they’re poorly understood, are really poorly regulated. It his mind was unnecessary deaths. So another example of that was that it starting in the early 1920s when people would come and fumigate your house for pass. They routinely use hydrogen cyanide, which we all know is a horrible, poisonous gas and not frequently. But people were killed by this home fumigation, hotel, fumigation ship, fumigation of hydrogen cyanide gas. And Norris and Gettler and some of the other folks in the medical examiner, you personally crusaded on this and eventually got it banned in New York. And then there was a ripple effect because they were saying there’s no reason for this poison to be killing people. This is an unnecessary death and we are they that we’re in the business of stopping them.
Well, I’d like to once again let listeners know that Doug Bloom’s new book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, you can get it through our Web site, point of inquiry, dawg. Let’s end with this question. What is the state of poisoning today? Is it more common? Is it less common? Is it just so easy to attack? Because our signs are so good that you don’t get away with it or are poisonous solar out there?
You know, homicidal. Poisonings have been creeping up slightly since the turn of the century, but there are several, a small percentage of I mean, they’ve always been, you know, not the number one choice because like I said, it takes a particular kind of person to be a poisoner. But they’re still around. There is a doctor who was just convicted a couple weeks ago in Cincinnati, Cleveland, for killing his wife with cyanide. And I you know what I’m like looking through poisons. I can, you know, pop them all over the place. They’re not as common because it’s much easier to catch people than it used to be. And one of the things that this moment in history that we’ve all been talking about change is that it ended up eventually bringing out what I think of as kind of a different attitude about poisons. When you go back and you look at them in the 1920s, you find that people they were very accessible, more accessible even than they are now in terms of cyanide and arson. And that people were actually pretty comfortable with, you know, using them in ways that we aren’t. Now, you can usually find stories in newspapers of, you know, so-and-so is angry at their neighbor and they went over and portal all cyanide in their milk when the mailman delivered it.
We don’t see that kind of behavior now. So much so. I think that it’s not only that the science is better, but as this becomes as the science starts catching people and they become publicly displayed and people start understanding how these things work, we tend to kind of have interesting social combat for the most part, that we’re not going to use these as profligately as we used to, which is a change for the good.
Well, on that note, Deb, thanks so much for being on the air. It has been enlightening and best of luck with the book. Thank you so much, Chris. I really enjoyed it.
I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry for updates throughout the week on the subject of the show. Please check out my blog at blogs, DOT. Discover magazine dot com slash intersection. Also, make sure to visit our online discussion forums to continue the dialog by going to center for inquiry dot net slash forums and then clicking on point of inquiry. The views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor of its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry Torg.
What inquiry is produced by Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York? In Our Music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard. I’m your host, Chris Mooney.