Toxicology – a look back in time

British Science Week is a good week to look at the science of Toxicology.  Toxicology is the branch of science that relates to poisons.

Many ancient texts were written about plant toxins and the use of poisons, but it wasn’t until the early 19th century that the first formal treatise of toxicology was compiled by Mathieu Orfila, who is considered the father of modern toxicology.

The field of Analytical Toxicology came to prominence particularly when identifying the use of poisons in murder cases.  British Chemist James Marsh developed a test for arsenic, which Orfila used to demonstrate arsenic poisoning in the 1840 LaFarge poisoning case .  This was instrumental in establishing the field of Forensic Toxicology. In 1850 Jean Stas used analytical techniques to demonstrate that nicotine was used as a poison in the case of a Belgian Count convicted of murder.

The rapid drug screening tests and highly complex High Resolution Accurate Mass Spectrometry techniques of today would be unrecognisable to the scientists of Orfila’s time, but the changing world of drug use and abuse mean that new techniques and technologies will continue to be needed.

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