The Arsenic Century, By James C. Whorton

Christopher Hirst
Friday 05 August 2011 00:00

It's curious how the most unlikely topics can generate books of the utmost interest. Whorton has done this with arsenic poisoning, both deliberate and accidental, in 19th century Britain.

Produced as a by-product of smelting – inspectors spotted enough to "destroy every animal on earth" piled outside a Cornish smelter – it was used by wallpaper makers, brewers, farmers, candlemakers, taxidermists and, yes, poisoners.

Whorton, a professor in the history of medicine, spares us none of the extremely grisly symptoms. Surprisingly, you can happily eat the neat element but 300mg of arsenic trioxide will kill you.

Arsenical wallpaper did not kill Napoleon or Queen Victoria, who had all the wallpaper ripped out of Buckingham Palace in 1879, but it did for many others.

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