What's my poison? Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, author, professor Deborah Blum

The Poisoner's Handbook.pngThis is going to be a quick welcome to Deborah Blum (@deborahblum) who has just moved her blog, Speakeasy Science, to ScienceBlogs.

Why quick?

Because I am only 22 pages away from finishing her latest book, The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. This engaging tale of the race of science and medicine against chemical poisonings for profit and punishment features the true story of NYC chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler. Of course, the other actors are arsenic, methanol, chloroform, thallium, and radium, among others. In the teens through the mid-1930s, long before benchtop atomic absorption spectrophotometry and LC/MS instruments, Norris and Gettler devised methods to detect poisons in human tissues with high sensitivity. These advances led to the prosecution of some, the absolution of the wrongly-accused, and revealed that our own government poisoned citizens who dared to challenge Prohibition.

Blum's colorful biography accounts somewhat for her fixation with insects, chickens, monkeys, and chemistry, a discipline she pursued at Florida State University until setting her braid on fire and switching to journalism at the University of Georgia.

Blum won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting in a newspaper series that led to her book, The Monkey Wars, about the ethics and polarization of primate research. A couple of books (Sex on the Brain, Love at Goon Park, and Ghost Hunters) and a plethora of writing assignments since, Blum now holds an endowed chair at the University of Wisconsin and as the Helen Firstbrook Franklin Professor of Journalism.

But before I learned of her award-winning writing, I first came upon Deborah Blum as co-editor (with Mary Knudson and Robin Marantz Henig) of A Field Guide for Science Writers, the official guide of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW). The guide was recommended to me by Tom Linden, MD, when I joined the graduate advisory board of his medical journalism program at UNC-Chapel Hill in his attempt to give a scientist some background on the profession.

Regular readers know that I am a huge fan of the history of science and medicine, so you can probably understand why I can't wait to get back to reading The Poisoner's Handbook. I was also originally trained as a toxicologist and published one of my first papers on heavy metals effects in the kidney before I moved to the discipline that chemicals are best used for therapeutic benefit. Hence, I am honored to now be writing under the ScienceBlogs masthead with a wonderful writer who has been one of my inspirations and with whom I share several passions.

But while I offer I warm welcome to Deborah Blum, a part of me also wants to warn those in her real life not to leave their beverage unattended in her presence.

More like this

During the 1920's, poisons could be found in abundance in almost any New York apartment. Cyanide, arsenic, lead, carbon monoxide, radium, mercury, methyl alcohol and more; these materials were part of everyday life, especially bootlegged alcohol in the "dry" era when the only stiff drinks commonly…
If you picked up The Poisoner's Handbook (amazon.com) looking for a fool-proof recipe, I hope you have read the book through and realized at the end that such a thing does not exist: you'll get busted. If they could figure it all out back in 1930s, can you imagine how much easier they can figure…
Go say Hello to Deborah Blum at Speakeasy Science. Check out her old blog and website, follow her on Twitter and enjoy her latest book - The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.
Yes, YASBC. Yet another science blogging community. Welcome to PLoS Blogs! From the introductory post: Today we are pleased to announce the launch of PLoS Blogs a new network for discussing science in public; covering topics in research, culture, and publishing. PLoS Blogs is different from other…

I finished this book and highly recommend it. It's very well structured and has a lot of interesting and useful knowledge.
I'm a big fan of Simon Singh's books and this of the same ilk and story-telling quality.

By TheBlindWatcher (not verified) on 10 May 2010 #permalink

You are aware of my penchant for Knowing Things. And when I found her blog yesterday? Squeee! I can't wait to read her book. This is better than The Bubonic Plague!

I will need to check this book out. It makes you wonder what's out there that we can't yet detect. The athletic dopers always seem to be about a half step ahead...

Thanks for the recommendation. I started it yesterday and I love it!

By Anonymous (not verified) on 13 May 2010 #permalink

I just finished it. Wow. I'm going to read it again. And recommend it for chemistry students next semester.

Disclaimer: I purchased this copy of the book with my own money; it was not a complementary copy from the publisher as are often sent out to bloggers. I would buy it again.

I want to give a shoutout to my colleague DrugMonkey who had the best title of a welcome post for Professor Blum:

"Holy schmoly - we got Deborah Blum?"