Author: Olen R. Brown

The Art and Science of Poisons

eBook: US $29 Special Offer (PDF + Printed Copy): US $103
Printed Copy: US $89
Library License: US $116
ISBN: 978-1-68108-698-9 (Print)
ISBN: 978-1-68108-697-2 (Online)
Year of Publication: 2018
DOI: 10.2174/97816810869721180101


Poisons, due to their lethal nature, invoke a sense of fear in humans. Yet, they have also impacted other aspects of human life. Poisons have been used by nomadic hunters to kill their prey, by scientists to explore complex biochemical mechanisms of the body, by physicians to lower cholesterol and to kill cancer cells, by farmers and the general public to destroy pests, by the evil minded for homicide, and by tyrants as weapons of war. The Art and Science of Poisons presents two facets of poisons: the science behind them and their place in history and art. The science of poisons describes their biochemistry and how they kill. The science story voyages into the sub-microscopic world of atoms, molecules, and cells. Only there can we see the true miracles and mysteries of life and death. Chapters in the book explore poisons from snakes, spiders, scorpions, sea creatures, as well as poisons made by humans in the laboratory, and those which are derived from beautiful plants.

The art of poisons, on the other hand, encompasses everything else about these agents that conjures up the image of the skull and crossbones. This side of the story explores the legends and tales of intrigue and surreptitious deaths of well-known personalities such as Socrates, Cleopatra, Hitler, and many more.

General readers with a curiosity about science and an interest in history and human nature will enjoy both facets presented in this brief, yet varied exploration into the world of poisons.


The author has written a superb review on the toxicology of numerous poisons that in general are not readily obvious. These include for example, arsenic, hemlock, scorpion venoms, plants, poisons that are associated with sea habitants, spiders, and snakes. Each chapter reviews in detail the differences in poisoning by these species. Finally, for those with a scientific background the author provides an excellent review of a potpourri of agents which can be toxic depending on the dose ingested or administered, and as the author points out in chapter 1, in the words of Paracelsus, “the dose makes the poison”. In the chapter on a potpourri of poisons the author discusses these chemical agents in detail including their mechanism of action. These include several drugs used clinically, such as opioids for pain, statins for treating hypercholesterolemia, doxorubicin for the treatment of cancer, curare, a muscle relaxant but which has been replaced by newer agents, warfarin an anticoagulant, the various alcohols, and carbon monoxide which is responsible for many emergency room visits. Finally, oxygen toxicity which may surprise many readers is discussed in detail as this has been the author’s area of research interest for decades. This last chapter entitled “a potpourri of poisons” will most likely require a background in chemistry and biology. This should not deter non-scientists from reading this book. In case of anything, it may convince non-scientists to consider a career change. The greatest strength of this book is that the author has provided one source a detailed compendium of appropriate internet references which allows the reader to obtain further knowledge on that specific poison. The book targets an audience that is generally interested in toxicology but not necessarily requiring a detailed background in the basic sciences, although some exposure to chemistry and biology would be helpful. This is a good book to have in home, particularly regarding the discussion of poisonous plants, aquatic species, spiders, and snakes. This should also be a good reference source for those working in state and federal national parks. The book is well-written and easy to read by a non-scientist, except for the last chapter, a potpourri of poisons which does require knowledge in chemistry and biochemistry. The book has a wealth of useful information. The book should also serve as a useful text for undergraduate toxicology programs. The author’s inclusion in several chapters of his own personal exposure to some of these potential poisons during his adolescent years provides a feeling to the reader of being there. The figures presented compliment the text and make the reading interesting and the readers desire to read more. The real strength of this book, however, is the remarkable extensive referencing provided by the author. He has produced a text with all of these references in one place for easy access for further readings. Well done Dr. Olen Brown.

Morris D. Faiman,
Department of Pharmacology
School of Pharmacy,
Life Span Institute
University of Kansas,
Lawrence, Kansas,