In A Taste for Poison: Eleven Deadly Molecules and the Killers Who Used Them (St. Martin’s, Feb.), biochemist Bradbury looks at the science behind murderers’ favorite toxins.
What are people’s biggest misconceptions about poisons?
The word poison conjures up images of harmful chemicals with no redeeming qualities, and indeed that’s true for many of them. The chemicals themselves have no malicious intent, it’s just how they are used. For example, atropine can be deadly in high levels, but it can also be given to patients with very low heart rates, to bring their pulse back to a healthy level.
Can you provide a few examples of poisons whose study led to beneficial medical advances?
Curare is used by South American tribes to coat the tips of their arrows. We now know that curare blocks the actions of nerves that control muscle contraction, including those responsible for breathing. The ability of curare to relax muscles finds widespread use in surgeries, particularly abdominal surgery. For many people with heart failure, digoxin, found in the poisonous foxglove plant, can be a lifesaving drug, strengthening the heart and improving circulation.
What’s the outlook for murder-by-poison, given that you believe that the prospect of a modern-day poisoner getting away with their crime is almost nonexistent?
It’s true that poisoning can be detected with sophisticated chemical analysis these days, but that doesn’t seem to have stopped people killing with poison. I don’t think poison as a means of murder will ever go away.
How did you choose the cases in the book?
Some were easy to choose, such as that of Alexander Litvinenko and his poisoning with radioactive polonium. The bizarre nature of the poison clearly warranted its inclusion. Others, such as that of Kenneth Barlow, show how insulin, a life-saving drug for millions of people with diabetes, was turned into a murder weapon just a few years after it was first discovered. I also wanted to highlight that different poisons can kill in completely different ways. Cyanide, for example, causes death in a totally different way than strychnine. After that, it was a case of sifting through reports for stories that had an interesting angle to them, and seeing the different motivations for the various killers.