Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 24, 2021
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Without a trace

Undetectable and deadly, arsenic has always been a powerful ally

Death by poison... it sounds almost romantic these days, thanks to all those historical figures and fictional icons who met their ends in a plate of tainted morsels. Some tales are especially dramatic, perhaps none more so than Cleopatra's. According to both Plutarch and Elizabeth Taylor, the last pharaoh of Egypt committed suicide by asp, plunging the fangs of the deadly viper into her own breast when she heard of Marc Antony's demise. Maybe the most famous poisoning of all was that of Socrates, who carried out his own death sentence by drinking a flask of hemlock. However, for those with foul play in mind, arsenic had everything one could want in a murder weapon.

The name arsenic has its roots in arsenikon, the Greek word for yellow orpiment, which came from the ancient Persian word zarnik. The metallic element was mined accidentally by several ancient civilizations. During the Bronze Age, metalworkers dropped like flies when arsenic contained within the copper ore they mined became hot during smelting, releasing a toxic gas.

In 1250, German theologian and chemist, Albertus Magnus (1193-1280), became the first on record to isolate arsenic. Throughout the remainder of the Dark Ages it became a popular ingredient for alchemists, though of course no gold ever came of it. Four centuries later, in 1649, the German pharmacist Johann Schroeder (1600-1664) revealed two clear ways of preparing it. But the history of arsenic doesn't really get interesting until the criminal mind became involved.

In 15th-century France, arsenic was known as poudre de succession, or inheritance powder. The poisoning method was a straightforward one — arsenic was simply mixed into the victim's tea. But the Italians were subtler than the French. Signora Giulia Toffana, an upscale purveyor of cosmetics and powders, knew exactly what enlightened women wanted — beauty and bucks. Beginning in about 1690, "Acqua Toffana," as it was sometimes known, was a special makeup blend available for sale only to the upper crust. Those who bought it received very specific directions for its use from Signora Toffana herself. They were told to apply it to their faces only while their husbands were around and to hold their breath while doing so. After about 600 hapless hubbies dropped dead, authorities began to catch on. In 1719, the Signora — who'd perhaps been inspired by Cesare and Lucrezia Borgia, the Italian Renaissance's most famous aristocratic arsenic poisoners — was tortured and strangled to death in a Naples prison, despite the best efforts of the merry widows she'd created.

Then, of course, there were those who came by their arsenic poisoning intentionally, such as the notorious Austrian arsenic eaters of the 19th century. While the noxious powder certainly isn't the strangest panacea people have turned to, it is perhaps one of the most ironic. Instead of improving complexions and fortifying libidos as this misguided group of Styrian peasants believed, the ingested arsenic just killed them. Interestingly, certain accounts suggest that some peasants were able to build up a tolerance for normally fatal doses. On the other hand, perhaps hardiness was just in their blood — if it's any indication, the current governor of California hails from the Styrian Alps.

It was, perhaps, unfortunate for Napoleon that he hailed instead from Corsica. After being defeated by the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo in 1815, the ex-emperor was exiled to the remote volcanic island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic. His entourage of about 20 people included his British captors, his servants, a few locals, some friends, a doctor and even a mistress or two. Within two years, Napoleon began to experience strange symptoms — diarrhea, weight loss, shivering, stomach pain, swollen limbs, nausea and headaches. He died in 1821. The doctors who performed his autopsy cited a cancerous stomach ulcer as the cause.

In 1952, Sten Forshufvud, a Swedish dentist with a toxicology hobby, read a first-hand account of Napoleon's symptoms prior to his death and came to the conclusion that he had actually been poisoned. In 1960, Forshufvud acquired a lock of Napoleon's hair at auction (it had been passed down through the family of a servant who'd snipped it after he died). Sure enough, testing revealed that high arsenic levels were present in the hair sample. Theories abounded as to who the murderer might have been.


But a more benign culprit emerged in 1980: the wallpaper in the house where Napoleon lived his final days. An investigation begun by Dr David Jones, a British chemist from the University of Newcastle, revealed that Napoleon may have died from Gosio's disease — a form of arsenic poisoning discovered by the Italian biochemist Bartolomeo Gosio in 1893. Gosio had traced a rash of more than 1000 arsenic poisonings to exposure to Scheele's Green, a popular pigment in 19th-century wallpaper and textiles that had the unfortunate quality of emitting an arsenic vapour upon mildewing.

As a long shot, Dr Jones put the word out on a British radio show that he was looking for anyone who might have a sample of the wallpaper from Napoleon's house on St. Helena. Amazingly, a woman named Shirley Bradley from Norfolk came forward with a flowery swatch that had apparently been in Napoleon's bedroom (handed down to her from an ancestor who'd visited the island in 1823). The analysis on the paper proved that it did indeed contain the offending pigment!

Not everyone buys the Gosio's disease theory. Detractors claim the wallpaper's noxious fumes weren't enough to kill Napoleon, that they may have simply exacerbated his pre-existing condition — the nasty ulcer discovered during his autopsy. Still, Napoleon wasn't the only one to die in his household under similar circumstances: his butler expired mysteriously as well, and many others complained of "bad air" and chronic symptoms similar to those of Napoleon. Since no testable samples from anyone else in his entourage seem to exist, we may never know what finally got the Little Corporal in the end — an ulcer, murder or unfortunate home decorating.

In England, during Victorian times, arsenic was put to good use in women's face powder, just as it had been for both sexes during the reign of Elizabeth I, some 300 years before. Victorian women really knew how to suffer for beauty. As if whale-bone corsetry weren't enough, a fair and flawless complexion was the ultimate goal at any cost. The problem, however, was that most prim ladies of the day considered cosmetics to be the habit of prostitutes. Thankfully, a far more refined way to achieve that natural pale look was at last achieved — a delightful "wafer" of vinegar, chalk and arsenic. Exactly how many women died for their pale beauty will never be known.

Complexions aside, arsenic remained a popular way to knock off one's romantic rival or cheating wife. Since the symptoms of arsenic poisoning were fairly diffuse and the only way to detect it was an unreliable hydrogen sulphide test, law enforcement and medical examiners had trouble identifying it. That is, until the English chemist James Marsh came along in 1832. Inspired by his dismal turn as an expert witness for a trial in which a poisoner went free, the frustrated Marsh found a better way to detect trace levels of the poison in food as well as stomach contents. After the Marsh Test, arsenic poisoning fell by the wayside.

One man, however, saw comic, not tragic, potential in the powdery yellow killer and elevated the poison to superstar status in his 1944 film, Arsenic and Old Lace, based on the successful Broadway play. America's warmest and fuzziest director of yesteryear, Frank Capra, had two sweet spinsters poison their gentlemen callers using a home-made potion of wine and arsenic. When their nephew discovers his beloved aunts have been burying bodies in the basement, the usual hijinks ensue. Murder-mystery writers took Capra's cue and to this day they continue to revel in arsenic's legendary status as a toppler of kings and paupers alike.

Still, in recent history, most cases of arsenic poisoning have been accidental. Clare Boothe Luce, remarkably appointed as American ambassador to Italy in 1953, famously suffered from arsenic poisoning while on the job in Rome, though it did not prove fatal. A CIA investigation revealed that a jumpy washing machine in the room above her embassy bedroom was causing flaky arsenic-filled paint to fall on her from the ceiling while she slept. In a prescient political insult, the Republican lady politician and her husband Henry (the owner of Time and Life magazines) were dubbed "Arsenic and Old Luce" by Democratic president Harry Truman, years before Clare Boothe's real-life brush with the poison.

Though its days as a murder weapon are pretty much done, arsenic poisoning continues to be a serious threat. In Bangladesh, as many as 57 million people are currently drinking groundwater contaminated with naturally occurring arsenic and the extent of the trouble is only now coming to light. Regions of Pakistan, Vietnam and other countries in Southeast Asia that rely on potable groundwater are facing a true crisis. If only those resilient Styrian peasants of yore were around to reveal their secret.


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