From grade school, children are taught the difference between living and non-living things. Once children can tell the difference between things that have life and those that do not, they go a step further to learn the characteristics of living things. I loved the acronym “MR NIGER D” that was used to teach how living things operate.
The last alphabet of the acronym “D” which stands for “Death” brings to the knowledge of every child the vulnerability of living things. Living things can die from different causes. Some of the prevalent causes of death are
- Natural death (when a person grows old and dies)
- Death by accident
- Natural disasters
Poisoning as a cause of death is not restricted to man only. Land Animals, plants, Birds, and sea creatures are vulnerable to destruction by poison.
What is a poison?
Poisons are harmful chemical substances that are capable of causing both permanent and temporary damage when absorbed into the body. There are different types of poisoning of which man can be a victim.
- Food poisoning: This happens when a person consumes food that has been contaminated with poisonous substances.
- Alcohol/ Drink poisoning: Alcohol poisoning can happen when a person has consumed an excessive amount of alcohol, but there is also a possibility of getting poisoned by non-alcoholic drinks as well. Drink poisoning occurs mostly when a poisonous substance is put into a person’s drink without their knowledge. The intention of the prisoner is usually to either kill the victim or cause some damages.
- Drug poisoning: When people abuse over the counter or prescription drugs they can get addicted or poisoned. Drug poisoning is usually caused by taking an overdose of medicine, combining drugs without knowing their chemical composition, or consuming expired drugs.
- Swallowed poisoning: When a person ingests a plant, chemical, fruit, mushroom, drug, or even fruit that is poisonous to the body, it is known as swallowed poisoning.
- Gas poisoning: Inhaling poisoning gases like carbon monoxide can be detrimental to the human body.
History of Poisoning
“Everything is poison; there is poison in everything”. Those are the words of Paracelsus a Swiss physician, botanist, astrologer, and alchemist who lived during the German Renaissance era and is recognised to this day as the father of toxicology. As far back as the creation of the universe, poisonous substances have existed.
Man, probably began to distinguish between what was healthy for consumption and what would lead to death by trial and error during the hunting and gathering days. Once humans were able to tell the difference between poison and food, he found a way to reserve the toxins for other purposes such as hunting for prey. In history, people in many small villages and big empires have fought wars, claimed thrones and healed themselves using poison.
People in the ancient times stuck to the use of poison for hunting purposes just that the hunters and gatherers, but they soon discovered that it could be used as a means of defence against their enemies.
Thus, they decided to create for themselves, weapons like poisonous spears, bows and arrows, and darts that became useful in fighting off threats to their safety. The source of the poisons added to the darts and arrows were plants and animals especially the poison dart frog. In Greek mythology, different plants that were used by different heroes for poisoning were mentioned.
However, as societies began to grow more complex, the need for assassination started to rise in the minds of people who sort, freedom, power, or vengeance and poisons became the go-to option.
Perpetrators of murders during that period knew that it would be difficult to find out the cause of the victim’s death depending on the kind of poison. It was also challenging to find the killers of people who were assassinated by poisoning, so it was a safer option for those with the intention to kill.
The Roman Empire was notorious for dinner table assassination using food and drink poisoning. Such murders became very popular amongst the upper class of the Roman society because they had easy access to poisonous substances and also had reasons to engage in power or love struggles.
Furthermore, with the passage of time, the use of poison for deadly purposes spread across the world and the Medieval European society seized the opportunity. Shops that sold chemicals and medicines (Apothecaries) became popular and open to the medieval European public, and that gave easy access to poisonous substances.
Killings by use of poison became very common during that time, and some people almost forgot that the Apothecaries were a go-to place for medicine to treat illnesses. However, the antidote for some of the poisons that were used was created, and some people were able to escape death after using the remedies.
Poisons were becoming easily identifiable because of their colours. People in the Arab world felt the need to make poisoning less suspicious, so they did something about the colour problem.
A particular type of colourless and odourless Arsenic was created by the Arabians, and it made poisoning easier. People could hardly detect the presence of poison in their food or drink as the colour remained the same.
For those who have seen the movie “The gods must be crazy” The Bushmen of the Kalahari should be familiar. These Northern Kalahari indigenes were known to hunt for prey using very tiny arrows that could not cause much damage to the wild animals on their own.
However, these hunters made use of the poisonous substances they got from the larva and pupae of Chrysomelid beetles. The hunters measured to amount of poison added to their hunting tools according to the size of their prey.
Even till date, poison remains both a healer and a killer, depending on the dosage and the method of contact with the human body. As far as medicine, technology, and science, in general, is concerned, poison has a significant role to play in making the world a better place as it has become a tool that allows for advancement in these fields.
In subsequent articles, we will be discussing the different kinds of poisoning, their symptoms, and methods of treatment.