The symbol of the skull and crossbones, long associated with poisons, conjures up vivid images of secretive, cowardly murder. This is part of the story in Brown's new book. Another part explores the unintended and often deadly consequences of miracle-cure drugs designed to lengthen, improve and even to save our lives. This includes the unprecedented tragedy that currently is sweeping through our society from the abuse of pain-killing drugs. The author also tells the story of poisons through revisiting legends and drama (including Shakespeare's plays), historical events (example: arsenic as the poison of kings and king of poisons), specific murders (Marie LaFarge, Harvey Crippen), the horrors of their use for mass murder (the holocaust), biological warfare and political intrigue and assassination (Georgi Markov), and by a humorous short story "The Dawn Singer".
It is correctly maintained that all things are poisonous; only the dose is decisive. This principle is demonstrated in the book by oxygen which is essential to life but becomes toxic at elevated concentrations. Brown notes: "We can live for several weeks without food, a few days without water, but only a few minutes without oxygen." However, oxygen is classified by the FDA as a drug and it is regulated because too much oxygen is harmful. In the book, Brown proposes a novel way of assessing poisons based on the number of molecules rather than the amount of poison by weight. This is appropriate because the exact mechanism and molecular site where poisons act is now known for most poisons.
Poisons include mineral substances from the earth (arsenic), leaves and flowers of beautiful plants (belladonna, and the deadly nightshade), and venoms of sea creatures, snakes, spiders, and scorpions (black widow, mamba, death stalker). Poisons also include chemicals purposely created in the laboratory as weapons of war or designed as drugs including those which selectively kill cancer cells. Even pain blockers and drugs that reduce blood cholesterol have toxic side effects. Thus, a drug powerful enough to cure a deadly disease may be strong enough to wreak unintended havoc in the delicate machinery of the living cell.
The Art and Science of Poisons demonstrates that poisons are neither good nor evil; it is the uses made of them by humans that determine their place in the moral spectrum.
About the Author:
Dr. Olen Brown is Professor Emeritus at the University of Missouri, Columbia. Most of Dr. Brown's scientific research has focused on the biochemistry of oxygen, its toxic effects and applications in hyperbaric medicine and for sustaining humans in undersea and outer space environments. He has also authored three previous books including, Oxygen, the Breath of Life: Boon and Bane in Human Health, Disease, and Therapy.
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