Ancient Times

The history of poisons dates to earliest times. Ancient man undoubtedly observed toxic effects in nature partly on a serendipitous basis as, for example, when he noted a harmful or fatal effect follow the casual ingestion of some plant or animal product by one of his fellow tribesmen. But serendipity was not the only mechanism of discovery. Assuredly, man experimented with natural products in an effort to improve his arsenal of weapons, the better to achieve success when waging war with his enemies.

Modern toxicology is characterized by extremely sophisticated scientific investigation and evaluation of toxic exposures of all kinds. To a large degree this has been made possible by the widespread application of computers to analytical equipment. Coupled with other chemical and electronic innovations modern instruments can detect quantities of toxins that are much smaller than those that could be measured in the past. Analytic methods are not only highly sensitive but they are also capable of extreme specificity so that compounds can be implicated in poisoning episodes to the near certain exclusion of other highly similar compounds. In the course of this text the reader will learn to appreciate the sophistication and application of technologies such as chromatography-mass spectrometry, inductively coupled plasmas, and many of the novel ways that antibodies have been employed to allow rapid and sensitive drug detection.

In modern times most poisoning episodes relate to synthetic products. Obviously, at an earlier and simpler time before technology permitted us to make better toxins, plant extracts and animal poisons were the poisons of choice. The Egyptian manuscript known as the Ebers Papyrus, approximately 1500 B.C., tells us that arsenic, lead, antimony, mandrake, hemlock, opium, aconite, and some other plant products were known for their poisonous properties even at that early time. Ancient poisons were used as weapons, but a unique feature of ancient use was the often ceremonial character of their application. Some poisons were ordeal agents, i.e., they were provided to a victim as an alleged means of deciding guilt or innocence. If the accused survived the exposure to the poison, the gods were smiling upon him and affirming his innocence.

More than 16,000 years before Christ, the Masai tribe of Kenya used poisons in darts and arrows to increase the lethality of their weapons and assure successful hunting. Among those arrow tip toxins was strophanthin, a cardiotoxic agent derived from plants indigenous to Kenya. Nor was the concept of arrows dipped in poison limited to Africa. In ancient India, as recorded in Rg Veda, an Indian text of 1100 B.C., aconitine was employed to charge arrows. The Greeks used hellebore, as described by Homer, in the same manner. The Romans dipped their arrows and darts into the blood of serpents. This practice is related by Ovid who lived from 43 B.C. to 18 A.D.

Ultimately, attempts were made to introduce a modicum of organization into the growing knowledge of poisons. These rudimentary efforts at classification included the division of poisons into those which are slow acting such as arsenic vs. fast-acting substances like strychnine. Dioscorides, a Roman physician, divided poisons according to their origin as vegetable, mineral, or animal.

Among the animal poisons, snake venom was, not surprisingly, best known. Nicander, a Greek of the second century B.C., experimented with snake venom and the poisons of other animals. He used prisoners as his unwilling subjects. Cleopatra is arguably among the most famous of the earliest victims of animal poisons. History records that she took her own life by allowing an asp to bite her.

Plants probably are the largest source of poisons from the perspective of the sheer number and variety of toxins and this is true even in modern times. The ancients took note of the toxic properties of plants. Theophrastus, writing in the fourth century B.C., described many poisonous plants in De Historia Plantarum. Some of the nations of antiquity such as Athens, used plants, e.g., hemlock, for official executions. Socrates was a victim of this practice as described in Phaedo, a work of Plato. As mankind became aware of the deadly nature of some plants such as hemlock, henbane, hellebore, etc., knowledge of their euphoric and abusable properties also spread. Opium and cannabis were two such plants well-known to the ancients.

Heavy metals caused very many problems in former centuries, problems which have not fully dissipated despite the higher level of modern knowledge. Lead, mercury, arsenic, and antimony were the major agents among metals which caused toxicity in ancient times. Lead was probably the most problematic. It may have, in the opinion of some scholars, been a major factor in the fall of the Roman Empire. The Romans not only used lead heavily in plumbing, but also in the preparation of food. Wine was exposed to leaden vessels for long periods because the Romans preferred the sweet taste which resulted.

No one knows what the first historical instance of deliberate poisoning for murderous purposes was; however, by the time of Rome, poisoners were very busy and regularly employed by those in power. The emperor Sulla proclaimed the Lex Cornelia in 81 B.C. By its provisions, a noble person who was guilty of poisoning would be exiled. A low-born poisoner would be given to wild beasts in the Coliseum. Locusta was a famous poisoner of antiquity. Among her many victims was the emperor Claudius. Locusta dispatched Claudius with arsenic or mushrooms, the exact nature of the poison not being clear from surviving historical documents. Locusta also poisoned Nero's stepbrother, Brittanicus, as part of an effort to control succession to the throne. The emperors were not fools and knew that death by poison was a constant occupational threat to anyone who aspired to such a high position. One way to minimize this threat was to employ tasters who sampled the food before the emperor. In the case of Brittanicus, legend has it that Locusta heated the food so intensely that the victim had to wait before eating it although the taster ate it while still hot. While the food was cooling, Locusta slipped in the toxin at the propitious time.

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