A deadly story – the origins of poisoning

Poison — a sophisticated murder weapon throughout the ages.
Poison — a sophisticated murder weapon throughout the ages.

Death by poisoning has been romanticised in mythology, literature and movies, but in reality the effects of poisoning are horrific.

Nowadays medical technology can treat poison victims and help them to survive, but in earlier times poisoning was virtually a guaranteed death sentence.

Where did poison come from?

It is believed that the use of poison stretches as far back as 4 500 BC. People generally used axes and clubs as weapons, and poison was meant to be a more subtle killing method. Many ancient Greek references are found for poison and the earliest record in Egypt was a list of poisonous plants.

While poison was originally obtained from nature, chemists started to experiment with different forms of poison as time marched on. 

When poison became man-made

The first usable form of arsenic was developed in the 8th century AD. An Arab chemist allegedly transformed arsenic, an element found in nature, into a tasteless, odourless powder. This, of course, made the act of poisoning a lot easier. Fast forward to the Middle Ages, and poisoning became a common way of getting rid of people at dinner tables. This sparked paranoia, especially in wealthy and royal families.

The Victorian times

During this age, poison was readily available to anyone who wanted it. Some forms of poison were actually used as remedies, and sometimes even found in common household items such as wallpaper and milk. Poisons were so easy to obtain that laws such as the such as the Arsenic Act of 1851 had to be introduced to help control sales. 

Popular poisons during the ages

While plant-based poisons were initially used, more sophisticated kinds of poisons became available as technology developed. Here’s a list of what people from different eras in history used:

  • Greeks and Romans: Hemlock, a group of poisonous plants, as well as aconite from the monkshood plant.
  • Medieval times: Poison from the belladonna plant – some medieval women actually used this as a cosmetic since it gave their cheeks a red flush! 
  • Industrial age: Apart from being used as a poison, cyanide was found in many things. Painters for example experimented with cyanide, wanting to add a touch of bright blue to their palettes. It was called Prussian blue.

The 20th century

Soon death by poison wasn’t just reserved for rich or royal families who wanted to get rid of unwanted family members. Entire governments were exploring warfare by poison.

Chemical warfare involves toxic substances in large quantities to kill large groups of people. According to research, the notion of chemical warfare started in the 19th century during the Crimean War where cyanide in artillery shells was used.

This was followed by the use of chlorine gas during the American civil war and ethyl bromoacetate and chloroacetone during the First World War. In the Second World War, millions of Jews and others were gassed with carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide.

What to do in a poison emergency

Even without malicious intent, poison emergencies can still happen in and around the home.

Here's what to do in a case of accidental poisoning:

  • Call the Tygerberg Poison Information Centre's emergency hotline at 0861 555 777.
  • Keep calm and make sure you have the container the poisonous substance came in at hand.
  • Remove clothing and rinse the skin with water if there was any skin contact with the poison.
  • If the poison got into the person's eye, flush the eye with lukewarm water for 15 minutes.
  • If the poison was inhaled, open doors and windows for ventilation. 

Image credit: iStock

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