Working In These Times
‘Poisoner’s Handbook’ Shows Forensic Medicine, Workers’ Health Go Hand in Hand
Deborah Blum's new history of forensic medicine, The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, will appeal to true crime buffs and labor historians alike.
The heroes of the story are New York City Medical Examiner Charles Norris and forensic chemist Alexander Gettler. Norris was a Pennsylvania blueblood who more or less singlehandedly dragged the corrupt and backward New York City coroner's office into the modern era, starting in 1918. His right-hand man was toxicologist Alexander Gettler. Gettler was the son of working class Jewish immigrants who paid for college and grad school by working nights as a ticket-taker on the Brooklyn-to-Battery ferry.
In the early 20th century, poisoners who didn't confess or get caught in the act were virtually guaranteed to get away with murder. Bosses who poisoned their employees with unsafe working conditions were no exception. Before the dawn of forensic medicine, there were no tests to detect most poisons in the body and no research to justify the inference that this dose killed that person. Workers often suffered the consequences.
Over the course of his long career, Gettler painstakingling invented and cross-validated tests for numerous poisons and conducted extensive research to document the effects of poisons on animals and humans. Along the way he made other interesting discoveries, like why some people hold their liquor better than others (it's all in the liver enzymes).
Gettler is known as the father of forensic toxicology in America. By rights he should also be regarded as a seminal figure in occupational medicine because he developed assays for industrial hazards like benzene, carbon monoxide, and tetraethyl lead (TEL). His investigations exposed numerous corporate villians.
Standard Oil opened a tetraethyl lead plant in New Jersey circa 1924. The workers dubbed factory the "House of Butterflies" because of the terrifying hallucinations the fumes induced. Within a year, 32 of 49 TEL workers were hospitalized and 5 were dead. The company tried to argue that the men had merely worked themselves to death. "Other than that, Blum writes, "the company didn't see a problem."
It was Gettler who proved that the brains of the dead workers from Standard Oil's "looney gas building" were shot through with lead. Gettler had to start the investigation from scratch because, as it turned out, neither Standard Oil nor the federal government had evaluated the effects of TEL on human health. The Standard Oil TEL plant was shut down.
If the federal government had listened to Norris, instead of chemical industry tycoons, lead would have been banned from gasoline in the 1920s. In fact, lead wasn't fully phased out of gas until 1996.
The most riveting piece of occupational detective work in the "Poisoner's Handbook" is the case of the Radium Girls. In 1928, Norris was called in for an unusual medical-legal consult in New Jersey. The local medical examiner wanted to know if the bones of a dead factory worker were radioactive. The bones were those of Amelia Maggia, dead at the age of 25, after years of applying "self-luminous" paint to watch dials at the U.S. Radium Company's factory in Orange. Norris was called in because some of Maggia's coworkers were suing the company for giving them the same deadly disease.
U.S. Radium made glow-in-the-dark watches. The paint glowed because it contained the radioactive element radium. At the time radium was regarded not merely as safe, but as healthful. In those days, you could buy tonics laced with radium. Relying on magical thinking rather than science, people concluded that a drink laced with a glowing element would imbue the drinker with a healthy glow of his own.
The watch painters, all women in their teens and twenties, were taught to suck on their brushes to bring them to a fine point. One by one, these apparently healthy young workers began to succumb to a mysterious illness. Their teeth fell out, their jaws shattered, and they bone marrow gave out. It was as if something was dissolving their skeletons from the inside. Nine dial painters died of the disease between 1917 and 1924.
The U.S. Radium Company hired a team of scientists from Harvard to investigate in 1924. The Harvard team concluded that the deaths were somehow connected to, though not necessarily caused by, the radium dust that blanketed the factory so heavily that some painters took on a permanent day-glo complexion. U.S. Radium refused to allow the researchers to publish their study because the results were "too sensitive."
The New Jersey Consumer's Union wasn't as easily cowed. The group conducted its own study and concluded that the U.S. Radium plant was incubating a terrible new industrial illness. Their activism put pressure on the public health authorities to investigate. The medical examiner sounded the alarm when he discovered that the dial painters were exhaling radon gas.
It was up to Gettler to prove that Amelia Maggia's bones were still radioactive, 5 years after her death. Radium is what's chillingly known as a "bone seeking" element. If radium is swallowed, the body mistakes it for calcium and builds it right into the skeleton. Once radium infiltrates the skeleton the victim's bones become permanently radioactive, irradiating unprotected surrounding tissue from the inside out. That's why the bones of the dial painters were crumbling.
This fact proved legally important because some of the surviving Radium Girls sued years after they left the factory. Lawyers for the other side argued that they weren't eligible for compensation because they didn't complain while they were at the company. The lab results proved that their bones filled up with radium at the U.S. Radium plant and continued to sicken them. Therefore, they were still eligible for compensation.
Despite ironclad evidence that swallowing radium was very bad for human health, regulators didn't get around to banning radium from "health" drinks until after Norris's office proved that a millionaire industrialist died of radium poisoning in 1932. The victim, Eben B. Myers, was a devotee of a stylish tonic called Radithor, which was sort of the Vitamin Water of its day. He died after chugging huge quantities of the beverage in an attempt to heal an elbow injury.
After Norris and Gettler revealed that Myers died from radium poisoning, his influential friends successfully lobbied the Federal Trade Commission to ban radium from consumer products. The FDA cited the Radithor scandal as an argument to expand its regulatory powers.
Greed pops up time and time again in the Poisoner's Handbook as a motive for murder. Sometimes it's individuals killing their friends and families for inheritance or insurance. However, chapter after chapter, we see that capitalist greed racks up a much higher body count:
The greedy bootleggers who blinded and killed their customers with wood alcohol during Prohibition; the callous exterminators who fumigated buildings with pure cyanide and chalked up occasional poisonings to the cost of doing business; the quacks and patent-medicine pushers who put thallium in depilatories, and arsenic in cold creams; and the big corporations that obfuscated and denied while their workers were dying.