The term poison first appeared in the English literature around the year 1230 A.D. to describe a potion or draught that was prepared with deadly ingredients.41,140 The history of poisons and poisoning, however, dates back thousands of years. Throughout the millennia, poisons have played an important role in human history—from political assassination in Roman times, to weapons of war, to contemporary environmental concerns, and to weapons of terrorism.
This chapter offers a perspective on the impact of poisons and poisoning on history. It also provides a historic overview of human understanding of poisons and the development of toxicology from antiquity to the present. The development of the modern poison control center, the genesis of the field of medical toxicology, and the recent increasing focus on medication errors and biologic and chemical weapons are examined. Chapter 2 describes poison plagues and unintentional disasters throughout history and examines the societal consequences of these unfortunate events. An appreciation of past failures and mistakes in dealing with poisons and poisoning promotes a keener insight and a more critical evaluation of present-day toxicologic issues and helps in the assessment and management of future toxicologic problems.
The earliest poisons consisted of plant extracts, animal venoms, and minerals. They were used for hunting, waging war, and sanctioned and unsanctioned executions. The Ebers Papyrus, an ancient Egyptian text written about 1500 B.C. that is considered to be among the earliest medical texts, describes many ancient poisons, including aconite, antimony, arsenic, cyanogenic glycosides, hemlock, lead, mandrake, opium, and wormwood.91,140 These poisons were thought to have mystical properties, and their use was surrounded by superstition and intrigue. Some agents, such as the Calabar bean (Physostigma venenosum) containing physostigmine, were referred to as "ordeal poisons." Ingestion of these substances was believed to be lethal to the guilty and harmless to the innocent.91 The "penalty of the peach" involved the administration of peach pits, which we now know contain the cyanide precursor amygdalin, as an ordeal poison. Magicians, sorcerers, and religious figures were the toxicologists of antiquity. The Sumerians, in about 4500 B.C., were said to worship the deity Gula, who was known as the "mistress of charms and spells" and the "controller of noxious poisons" (Table 1–1).140
Table 1–1. Important Early Figures in the History of Toxicology |Favorite Table|Download (.pdf)
Table 1–1. Important Early Figures in the History of Toxicology
|Gula||ca. 4500 B.C.||First deity associated with poisons|
|Shen Nung||ca. 2000 B.C.||Chinese emperor who experimented with poisons and antidotes and wrote treatise on herbal medicine|
|Homer||ca. 850 B.C.||Wrote how Ulysses anointed arrows with the venom of serpents|
|Aristotle||384–322 B.C.||Described the preparation and use of arrow poisons|
|Theophrastus||ca. 370–286 B.C.||Referred to poisonous plants in De Historia Plantarum|
|Socrates||ca. 470–399 B.C.||Executed by poison ...|