Bitter nemesis: the intimate history of strychnine

Bitter nemesis: the intimate history of strychnine 

John Buckingham 

Boca Raton, US: CRC Press (Taylor & Francis Group) 2007 | 298 pp | ?19.99 (SB) ISBN 9781420053159 

Reviewed by Helen Lunn

This is a well-researched and well-written book chronicling the history of strychnine from its discovery and isolation, medical experimentation, accidental and intentional use as a poison to its notoriety in crime fiction. It is hard to fathom how such a deadly poison remained in pharmacopoeias for a century and a half, but John Buckingham explores this and other imponderables against the backdrop of the social history and legislation of the time. As such the book also focuses on the development of the divisions of forensic science, chemistry, medicine, pharmacy and pathology not just in the UK, but worldwide - with France very much at the forefront. 

Real and fictional crimes are investigated. The non-fictional crimes range from the depressing murders of children for the burial funds or insurance, to the attempted murder of Lloyd George - some including court transcripts. Strychnine poisoning, on the other hand, is relatively uncommon in fiction, but this book includes cases involving such luminaries as Agatha Christie, Alexandre Dumas and Sherlock Holmes. 

The drawbacks for strychnine as an effective poison derive from its bitter taste and tetanus-like spasms, but these did not hinder its use in the treatment of many medical ailments, from paralysis and coma to abortion. Amazingly, drug testing of athletes today still constitutes a test for strychnine. 

All the chapters are supplemented with detailed end-notes and there is a comprehensive bibliography. The book would appeal to a wide audience, scientist and non-scientist alike.