History of Toxicology

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Paracelsus, pictured here, was a 16th century physician and is considered to be the “Father of Toxicology.”  Toxicology as a distinct scientific discipline is fairly modern; however, knowledge of poisons and poisoning incidents date back to ancient times.  Humankind’s desire to assure its health and safety has always been present, but drawing conclusions about harmful chemicals required learning.  Initially this was done by trial and error, where substances were tested to see which were safe and which were best avoided.  Written documents dating back to around 450 BCE have been recovered that describe the toxicity of venom released in a snakebite and how it can be treated.  Cleopatra herself is reputed to have committed suicide by a self-inflicted bite from an asp, although this widely told narrative may be more fiction than fact.  The Greeks and Romans also had a good knowledge of many naturally occurring poisons.  In fact, death by poison was not an uncommon form of capital punishment.  Socrates, for example, was sentenced to drink poisonous hemlock for supposedly corrupting the youth of Athens and failing to recognize official state deities.  Many expert poisoners have continued over the centuries to be employed to dispatch spouses, other family members, and enemies of every shade and hue.

Paracelsusportrait 
The science of toxicology advanced significantly throughout the middle ages with an understanding of occupational diseases connected with mining operations.  Paracelsus, (pictured here and also at the beginning of this article), was a Swiss/German physician and alchemist best known for articulating the concept of “The dose makes the poison,” and who is considered today to be the bedrock of toxicology.  Over time, research toxicologists have studied the toxicity of a vast range of chemicals, both naturally occurring and synthetic.  More recently toxicologists have embraced “green chemistry” as an approach to identifying and developing chemicals and products with properties that minimize negative impacts on humans and on the environment. Modern toxicology has tried to move away from the traditional approach of animal testing and towards a harm-free route of experimentation.  Toxicologists have been at the forefront in seeking alternative methods to traditional types of testing that are at least as reliable in determining toxicity.  The contemporary era has embraced research in additional areas including molecular-, computational-, and nano-toxicology.  Although new methodologies continue to be explored, for some toxic endpoints there are no alternatives to animal testing. 

The following resources review various aspects of the global evolution of the field through a continuum of eras and from different perspectives.

All resources below are suitable for general audiences, though some may also hold special appeal for audiences as marked – Also for Kids or Also Scholarly)

(V = Video, $ = fee)

 

Alice Hamilton and the Development of Occupational Medicine (http://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/education/whatischemistry/landmarks/alicehamilton.html) – Alice Hamilton, born in 1919, was a pioneering figure in the fields of toxicology and occupational health.  Her many contributions to workplace safety include studies on the hazardous effects of industrial metals and chemical compounds in humans.  She was the first woman appointed to the faculty at Harvard University.  Learn about her life and achievements on this Web page from the American Chemical Society.

 

Chemical Heritage Foundation http://www.chemheritage.org – While not focused on toxicology, the Chemical Heritage Society possesses a vast array of resources on the history of chemistry, which is inextricably bound to toxicology. Also Scholarly

 

The Elements of Murder: A History of Poison (by John Emsley, 2005, Oxford University Press) (Available through Amazon and other booksellers).  This book offers an account of five toxic elements – arsenic, antimony, lead, mercury, and thallium, and highlights their use in famous historical murder cases. $

 

Environment, Health, You – This video from the American Public Health Association on the history of environmental health overlaps with many areas relevant to toxicology, including clean air and water, safe food, pesticides, and occupational safety and health.  Includes fascinating archival footage. Video


American Public Health Association: Environment • Health • You from Lila Films.

 

The Heritage of Bernardino Ramazzini (http://occmed.oxfordjournals.org/content/47/3/167.full.pdf)   Widely acknowledged as the father of occupational medicine, Bernardino Ramazzini authored De Morbis Artificum Diatriba (Diseases of Workers), the first major treatise on the subject.  Ramazzini is the subject of this paper in the journal, Occupational MedicineAlso Scholarly

 

History of Toxicology (http://www.toxipedia.org/display/toxipedia/History+of+Toxicology) – {Spanish Language option available.}  – Provides an overview of toxicology from antiquity to the present day.   Includes Milestones of Toxicology, an interactive poster arranged chronologically.

 

History of Toxicology and Allied Sciences: A Bibliographic Review and Guide to Suggested Readings (by Dale A. Stirling, International Journal of Toxicology 26(4):261-268) (http://ijt.sagepub.com/content/25/4/261.full) – This free journal article is an excellent reading guide to the history of various toxicology sub-disciplines.

 

History of Toxicology and Environmental Health (Toxicology in Antiquity, Volumes I and II)( https://www.elsevier.com/books/history-of-toxicology-and-environmental-health/unknown/978-0-12-800045-8 and http://store.elsevier.com/History-of-Toxicology-and-Environmental-Health/Philip-Wexler/isbn-9780128015063/) – These first two volumes of an online and print-on-demand monographic series by Elsevier cover such topics as toxicology in ancient Egypt, the death of Cleopatra, the case against Socrates, poisoning in ancient Rome, the snake as a toxicological symbol, poisonous medicine in ancient China, etc. $, Also Scholarly

 

The Love Canal Disaster: Toxic Waste in the Neighborhood (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kjobz14i8kM) – Love Canal brought the issues of environmental toxicity home to the general public.   In the late 1970s in upstate New York, homeowners living above a chemical dump began experiencing an array of medical ailments.  This New York Times video, published 35 years after Love Canal started making headlines, looks at its legacy. Video

 

Paracelsus: Herald of Modern Toxicology by Joe Borzelleca (Toxicological Sciences 53(1), pgs. 2-4) (http://toxsci.oxfordjournals.org/content/53/1/2.full) – This free journal article explores Paracelsus’ key contributions in toxicology and medicine.

 

Popularizing Controversial Science: A Popular Treatise on Poisons by Mateu Orfila (1818) by Jose Ramon Bertomeu-Sanchez (Medical History 53(3), pgs. 351-378) (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2706058/)  – A free journal article taking a close look at  a book by a key figure in the history of forensic toxicology, Mateu Orfila, and how it was adapted to 19th century lay audiences.

 

Related topics:   Occupational Safety and Health, All Natural!  All Safe?  Everything is a Chemical!Green Chemistry, Toxicity Testing: Animals and Alternatives.

 

(revised 8/3/2016 from original posting 1/28/2016)

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