Sunday, April 26, 2015

Deadly or a Curative-poisons in medications

by Diane Scott Lewis

Toxins and poisonous plants have been utilized for centuries in medications. A Persian physician in the tenth century first discovered that poisons such as mercury could be employed as curatives and not only for applying on the tip of an arrow/spear to kill your enemy. But poisons had to be managed carefully.

Plants, long the healing forte of the wise-woman in England, were a common ingredient in medicinal "potions," though many had deadly qualities.

The foxglove, with its beautiful hooded, purple bloom is fatal if eaten.

William Withering
But eighteenth century British physician, William Withering, used infusions of this plant to treat dropsy (now known as edema).

Later, digitalis for heart failure, was created from this plant.

Rosy periwinkle is also toxic to eat. However, in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine, it’s used to treat diabetes and constipation.

More well known is the Opium poppy, used to make morphine (and unfortunately heroin-the killer of many an addict). Morphine is invaluable as a pain reliever for the sickest of patients. Small doses of other deadly toxins such as henbane, hemlock and mandrake have been employed to ease the pain of surgeries. But a dose slightly too high would kill the patient.

Strychnine, derived from a tree seed or bark, was made into medicines to raise blood pressure. It was first marketed as a poison to kill rodents.

In Shakespeare’s time, poisonous extracts were added to cough medicines. Opiates were common in cough remedies, mainly for sedation. Mrs. Cotton in the seventeenth century suggested a mixture of vinegar, salad oil, liquorice, treacle, and tincture of opium when "the cough is troublesome."

No one yet understood the addictive nature of some of these drugs—if the patient lived to find out.

The chemical element mercury, another toxin, was used starting in the 1500’s to treat syphilis.

Well into the twentieth century, mercury was an ingredient in purgatives and infant’s teething powder.

Arsenic is another poison (also utilized to kill rats) that was commonly added to medications. A chemical element, arsenic is found in many minerals. In the 18th to 20th centuries, arsenic compounds, such as arsphenamine (by Paul Ehrlich, 1854-1915) and arsenic trioxide (by Thomas Fowler, 18th c.) were popular. Arsphenamine was also used to treat syphilis. Arsenic trioxide was recommended for the treatment of cancer and psoriasis.

Numerous people suffered adverse effects or died after the ingestion of these lethal ingredients.

In my recent release, The Apothecary’s Widow, arsenic is found in the tinctures used to treat the ague of Lady Pentreath. Unfortunately, arsenic is not normally one of the ingredients listed in that cure, and never in such a large dose.

Who murdered Lady Pentreath, her miserable husband, Branek, or the apothecary Jenna who prepared the medicines, a widow about to be evicted from her shop, which is owned by the Pentreaths? A corrupt constable threatens to send them both to the gallows.

Click here to purchase The Apothecary’s Widow.

To find out more about my novels, please visit my website:

The Power of Poison: Poison as Medicine, the American Museum of Natural History

William Buchan, Domestic Medicine: or, a treatise on the prevention and cure of diseases by regimen and simple medicines [second edition] (London: 1772)



  1. That's fascinating Diane. I'm saving the information to my own murder mystery research file, funny how knowing about poisons is timeless for mystery writers. Great stuff. Jude

  2. Here's another interesting fact, the arsphenamine you mentioned is also known as "606" because it was the 606-th compound tested in the search for syphillis treatment.


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