Author: Olen R. Brown

The Art and Science of Poisons

eBook: US $29 Special Offer (PDF + Printed Copy): US $113
Printed Copy: US $98
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.


I hope to entice the scientist and other readers of this book in equal measure. Poisons have two stories to tell. The science of poisons deals with the chemistry of toxic agents and the way they work at the cellular and molecular level. The art of poisons encompasses everything else about these agents that congers up the image of the skull and crossbones.

The science of poisons takes us on a voyage into the sub-microscopic world of atoms, molecules, and cells. Only there can we see the true miracles and mysteries of life and death. The mere existence of poisonous substances and especially the uses made of them by plants and animals are wondrous. Poisons are also used to explore the biological mechanisms of the body, to lower cholesterol by blocking its synthesis, to kill cancer cells, to destroy pests of all kinds, and as weapons of war. Science is neither moral nor amoral, only its uses can be so characterized.

The art of poisons encompasses everything else about poisons. It is the legends and stories of intrigue and murder and other deeply deplorable uses of toxic agents often with a surreptitious and evil intent. Let us hope that the future extends the beneficial applications of poisons and quells their evil uses.

A traditional, central concept in toxicology can be stated simply: the lethal dose of a substance is the amount required to kill the average person (the LD50). Today for most poisons, the mechanism of how they kill is known at the molecular level. Therefore, I propose that a new measure of toxicity based on the number of molecules required to kill (the LD50*) is appropriate.

The simplest summary idea about poisons is one of the oldest ̶ the dose makes the poisons (paraphrased from Paracelcus). I believe the most extreme example is the toxicity of oxygen. Oxygen is essential; we cannot live more than a few minutes without oxygen; however, it is detectably toxic at approximately two times the concentration found in air, and at hyperbaric pressures it is lethal.

Olen R. Brown
Dalton Cardiovascular Research Center
University of Missouri
Columbia, MO


Not applicable.


The authors declare no conflict of interest, financial or otherwise.


This book was written out of my experiences gained through scientific study, experimentation, and life. I was aided by the many individuals in my laboratory and the students I was privileged to instruct at the University of Missouri. I also thank my students and professors at the University of Oklahoma where I learned a deeper appreciation for science. I thank them all with deep gratitude borne out of experiencing the grace brought by science and discovery.

I especially thank Claire Engler and John Allen for Art work illustrating concepts in the book and Cameron Brown for invaluable assistance with preparation of the manuscript and computer formatting.