This week’s entry: Poisons
What it’s about: Nature and industry alike have produced innumerable substances that are fatal if ingested. And since the beginning of time, people have been using them to kill each other. Wikipedia not only has a page on poisons of various kinds, it has a list of notable people who have succumbed to its effects.
Strangest fact: The Jamestown colonists may have been poisoned. The failed colony that predated Plymouth Rock was founded in 1607 and called “the first colony in the British Empire,” but fell into decline in 1699 after the town burned down several times in a short span, and was fully abandoned in the 1750s. As with most early European settlements in America, it got off to a rough start, as more than 80 percent of the original colonists died in 1609-10. Disease and starvation accounted for most of the death, but there’s also historical speculation that many settlers died from arsenic poisoning.
Biggest controversy: There’s a long list of alleged poisonings, that history will probably never confirm. There are claims, of varying levels of veracity, that poison felled a long list of world leaders, including Alexander The Great, Roman emperors Augustus and Claudius, England’s King John, Sweden’s King Eric XIV, Korean Emperor Gojong, Pharoah Ptolemy XIV (allegedly done in by his sister, Cleopatra), Napoleon, Stalin, Arafat, President Zachary Taylor, and several Popes. There are also suspected accidental poisonings, like the case of Charles Darwin, who may have died from self-administering a tonic called Fowler’s solution, which contained potassium arsenite. It was long suggested that antimony poisoning was the cause of the mysterious illness that killed Mozart, although that theory has been widely discredited.
Thing we were happiest to learn: Some people survive being poisoned. The most famous recent case was Viktor Yushchenko, who was poisoned with what should have been a fatal dose of TCDD (an ingredient in Agent Orange) while running for President of Ukraine. He survived, won a runoff election, and served as President for five years. Several people on the list were poisoned by the KGB and survived, apparently a Russian tradition that dates back to Grigori Rasputin, mysterious advisor to Tsar Nicholas II who was unsuccessfully poisoned as part of an assassination attempt that also saw him survive being shot and bludgeoned, before finally dying by drowning in a frozen river.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Poisoning is big business. Or maybe that should be the other way around. The worst industrial disaster in history was the Bhopal gas tragedy, in which a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India run by Union Carbide leaked poison gas into the surrounding towns, poisoning as many as half a million people. The Indian government found that lack of routine maintenance allowed water to overflow into a chemical tank, causing a deadly spill. Union Carbide insisted it was sabotage. Estimates of the eventual death toll range from 3,700 to more than 16,000.
Also noteworthy: While the 1990-91 Gulf War was a swift, decisive victory for the United States, nearly a third of the veterans who returned showed chronic wide-ranging symptoms of something doctors began calling Gulf War Syndrome. While there has been much speculation as to the cause, a definitive cause has never been agreed on. Early on it was suggested that inhaling smoke from oil well fires, or depleted uranium used in Iraqi munitions, or even anthrax could be the cause, but all of these were dismissed over time. Remaining possibilities include pesticides, sarin gas, or pyridostigmine bromide, a pill given to soldiers to protect from exposure to sarin and other nerve gases.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Those of our readers who can remember all the way back to the year 2000 might recall the thrilling and tragic tale of the Kursk submarine disaster. A Russian submarine sunk during a naval exercise, and rescuers were unable to connect a rescue vehicle to the sub’s escape hatch. After four fruitless days, President Vladimir Putin accepted help from Britain and Norway’s navy, and a Norwegian team finally made it into the sub, only to find it flooded and all 118 sailors on board dead. The story makes the list of poisonings because during the aftermath, Nadezhda Tylik, the mother of one of the doomed sailors, vocally criticized Putin at a press conference, until she was forcibly injected with a sedative, was left unable to speak, and was carried out of the room. Thankfully, the awful incident was at least one of the few incidents of non-lethal poisoning on the list.
Further down the wormhole: Poison has been a well-worn motif in fiction, used many times in the mysteries of Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, and Dashiell Hammett. Literary figures from Hamlet to Romeo to Snow White all met their end at poison’s hands. Even two incarnations of the Doctor on Doctor Who died of poison (the third and 10th Doctors). Doctor Who has been one of television’s most durable institutions, with a 26-year run on the BBC, followed by a 2005 revival that’s still going strong. We’ll travel backwards through time to look at the history of Doctor Who next week.