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Picking The Poison: The Story Of Forensic Medicine

Say you live in jazz-age New York and want to get rid of someone — but you don't want to get caught. What would be your poison of choice?

Author Deborah Blum recommends arsenic — otherwise known as "inheritance powder" — which was pretty much untraceable until the 1920s.

"Arsenic, as it turns out, is fairly tasteless, and if you give it at just the right dose ... you can actually make it mimic a gastrointestinal illness," Blum tells NPR's Guy Raz.

There were, of course, other options — morphine, mercury, carbon monoxide — all virtually undetectable because science didn't know how to find it in the body. But that all changed, Blum says, when two scientists took it upon themselves to "elevate forensic chemistry into a formidable science."

Blum's new book, The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, follows two trailblazers of science — Charles Norris, New York City's first chief medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, the father of American forensic toxicology — through the criminal investigations that helped develop the practice of forensic medicine.

Blum says Norris — a pathologist by training — believed that there could be no good criminal justice unless it marched hand in hand with good science. So Norris and Gettler worked tirelessly to develop the forensic tools they needed for individual criminal investigations.

"Sometimes they would literally start a prosecution without knowing how to find the poison," Blum says, "and they would be running these tests during the trial so that they would have the results at the end of the trial."

One such investigation involved a group that came to be known as the Radium Girls.

During World War I, it was discovered that you could make watch faces glow in the dark by mixing radium into the paint used on the dials. What no one knew at the time was that radium was a highly radioactive element.

The Radium Girls were the young women who worked in factories painting those very watch dials. But the girls had no reason to think the paint was dangerous, so they got in the habit of wetting the paint brushes in their mouths to get a sharp point.

"What happened was that after a couple of years, they started dying in these bizarre, mysterious, horrible ways," Blum says. "Their jaws literally crumbled. Their bones broke underneath them."

Eventually, Norris and Gettler were called in to investigate.

"They were asked to look at one of these young watch painters who had been buried for five or six years, and they brought her body up and took pieces of her bones and wrapped them in photographic paper, and were able to show that even after five years, these bones were just hissing out radiation," Blum says.

The tests Gettler developed for his Radium Girls investigation were published in a study that demonstrated the danger of radium exposure for human beings.

Blum says the field of forensic investigation owes an incredible debt to the work of these two scientists.

"Gettler and Norris were part of a movement born in New York City to make forensics a respectable science — one in which scientists were specifically trained," Blum says.

"They lobbied nationwide to make the criminal justice system believe that science was an important part of the mix."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.