The Art and Science of Poisons

The Art and Science of Poisons

Poisons, due to their lethal nature, invoke a sense of fear in humans. Yet, they have also impacted other aspects of human life. Poisons have been used by nomadic hunters to kill their prey, by ...
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Poisoned by Lovely Plants

Pp. 90-123 (34)

Olen R. Brown


Many plants contain chemical compounds that are mildly toxic to humans; some plants are overtly poisonous, and a few are deadly. Throughout history, the leaves, roots, stems, and berries of certain plants have been used for murder, often of the vilest sort. Also, people and animals are accidentally poisoned by plants some of which are garden-variety ornamentals. Because there are so many choices, in this chapter, I have elected to describe certain plant toxins because of extreme toxicity, some because of unusual examples of their murderous applications, and a few because they have become the subject of legends. I hope to draw the reader’s interest in the science of toxic plants and their poisons and about the use of these poisons in modern accounts and in tales that are mostly myth. A true story, but one with sensationalized nuances and uncertainties and a modern revisiting, is the murder conviction of Harvey Crippen based on a death from a medicinal chemical derived from the belladonna plant. I will explore what I have chosen to call the art and science of five very poisonous plants: belladonna (deadly nightshade), white snakeroot, castor bean, rosary pea, and monkshood. I will include references rather than extensive descriptions of the plants, details about the signs and symptoms of poisoning, an example of poisonous use (extensive for belladonna), and the biochemistry and biology of the mechanisms of toxicity of the chemicals.


Alkaloids, Belladonna, Belle Crippen, Castor bean, Hawley Crippen, Deadly nightshade, DNA analysis, Ethel Le Neve, Georgi Markov, Hyoscine, Hyoscyamine, Jequirity, Monkshood, Plant toxins, Scopolamine, Ricin, Rosary pea, Vitali test, Water hemlock, White snakeroot, Wolf’s bane.


Dalton Cardiovascular Research Center University of Missouri Columbia, MO USA.