THE FIRST FORENSIC SCIENCE
For many centuries, poisoning has been a popular method of murder. One reason is that almost any natural
substance in the right dose can be poisonous, and many poisons mimic common medical diseases, leading
physicians to believe a victim died of natural causes.
Toxicology is important not just for an investigation in which foul play is suspected. It is equally essential
for determining accidental deaths and suicides—and even for substance abuse while on the job. A
toxicologist may be called on to test for anything from arsenic to poisoned gas to GHB to prescription drugs.
"The American Chemistry Society has said there are about 21 million registered compounds," says Dr.
Robert Middleberg of National Medical Services, the world's foremost independent toxicological testing
laboratory, which tests for more than 3,000 of those compounds. He suspects the number of poisonings each
year are underestimated.
While toxicologists need "symptoms, signs, and a good case history" to narrow down the diverse range of
possible substances suspected in a death, sometimes it becomes a matter of systematically eliminating them
There are several common substances to look for to determine whether a death is a suicide or an accident.
When Marilyn Monroe was found dead from an overdose of Nembutal and chloral hydrate in 1962, a
psychological analysis was done as well as a toxicological screening. These tests suggested that she fit the
profile for frequent suicidal depression, even though they did not take into account the many recent positive
events going on in her life at the time of her death. Very controversially, accidental death was ruled out,
although the drugs used seemed obvious, since the packages were on her nightstand. While there were a
number of conspiracy theories, the physical evidence suggests accidental death was the only way to explain
the autopsy results.
A popular poison for suicide is carbon monoxide from a car engine, although drug overdoses or mixed doses
of domestic medications are also widely used. Accidental deaths can result from overdoses of drugs such as
opium, hyoscine, morphine and heroin. Examples of poisons that have been commonly used for murder are
aconitine, atropine, strychnine, thallium, antimony, arsenic and cyanide.
The history of forensic toxicology goes back about 200 years, but before reviewing it, let's first define what
this branch of science actually is. Technically speaking, John Brenner's
Forensic Science Glossary
toxicology as the study of poisons, but it also covers the detection of foreign substances in the body that can
have a toxic effect, such as alcohol, industrial chemicals, poisonous gas, illegal drugs, or drug overdoses.
Sometimes a toxicological procedure involves analyzing a blood or urine sample, or a strand of hair. Other