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History of poison

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The international pictogram for toxic chemicals.

The history of poison[1] stretches from before 4500 BCE to the present day. Poisons have been used for many purposes across the span of human existence, most commonly as weapons, anti-venoms, and medicines. Poison has been heavily studied in toxicology, among other sciences, and its use has led to several technological innovations.

Poison was discovered in ancient times, and was used by ancient tribes and civilizations as a hunting tool to quicken and ensure the death of their prey or enemies. This use of poison grew more advanced, and many of these ancient peoples began forging weapons designed specifically for poison enhancement.[citation needed] Later in history, particularly at the time of the Roman Empire, one of the more prevalent uses was assassination.[2] As early as 331 BCE, poisonings executed at the dinner table or in drinks were reported, and the practice became a common occurrence. The use of fatal substances was seen among every social class; the nobility would often use it to dispose of unwanted political or economic opponents.

In Medieval Europe, poison became a more popular form of killing, though cures surfaced for many of the more widely known poisons.[citation needed] This was stimulated by the increased availability of poisons; shops known as apothecaries, selling various medicinal wares, were open to the public, and from there, substances that were traditionally used for curative purposes were employed for more sinister ends.[citation needed] At approximately the same time, in the Middle East, Arabs developed a form of arsenic that is odorless and transparent, making the poison difficult to detect. This "poison epidemic" was also prevalent in parts of Asia at this time.[citation needed]

Over the centuries, the variety of harmful uses of poisons continued to increase. The means for curing these poisons also advanced in parallel. In the modern world, intentional poisoning is less common than the Middle Ages. Rather, the more common concern is the risk of accidental poisoning from everyday substances and products.

Constructive uses for poisons have increased considerably in the modern world. Poisons are now used as pesticides, disinfectants, cleaning solutions, and preservatives. Nonetheless, poison continues to be used as a hunting tool in remote parts of developing countries.

Origins of poison[edit]

Strychnos toxifera, a plant used for the making of dart and arrow poisons

Archaeological findings prove that while ancient mankind used conventional weapons such as axes and clubs, and later swords, they sought more subtle, destructive means of causing death—something that could be achieved through poison.[3] Grooves for storing or holding poisons such as tubocurarine have been plainly found in their hunting weapons and tools, showing that early humans had discovered poisons of varying potency and applied them to their weapons.[3] Some speculate that this use and existence of these strange and noxious substances was kept secret within the more important and higher-ranked members of a tribe or clan, and were seen as emblems of a greater power. This may have also given birth to the concept of the stereotypical "medicine man" or "witch doctor".[3]

Once the use and danger of poison was realized, it became apparent that something had to be done. Mithridates VI, King of Pontus (an ancient Hellenistic state of northern Anatolia), from around 114–63 BC, lived in constant fear of being assassinated through poison. He became a hard-working pioneer in the search for a cure for poisons.[3] In his position of power, he was able to test poisons on criminals facing execution, and then if there was a possible antidote. He was paranoid to the point that he administered daily amounts of poisons in an attempt to make himself immune to as many poisons as he could.[3] Eventually, he discovered a formula that combined small portions of dozens of the best-known herbal remedies of the time, which he named Mithridatium.[3] This was kept secret until his kingdom was invaded by Pompey the Great, who took it back to Rome. After being defeated by Pompey, Mithridates' antidote prescriptions and notes of medicinal plants were taken by the Romans and translated into Latin.[4]

Pliny the Elder describes over 7000 different poisons. One he describes as "The blood of a duck found in a certain district of Pontus, which was supposed to live on poisonous food, and the blood of this duck was afterwards used in the preparation of the Mithridatum, because it fed on poisonous plants and suffered no harm."[3]


Indian surgeon Sushruta defined the stages of slow poisoning and the remedies of slow poisoning. He also mentions antidotes and the use of traditional substances to counter the effects of poisoning.[5]

Poisoned weapons were used in ancient India,[6] and war tactics in ancient India have references to poison. A verse in Sanskrit reads "Jalam visravayet sarmavamavisravyam ca dusayet," which translates to "Waters of wells were to be mixed with poison and thus polluted."[6]

Chānakya (c. 350–283 BC), also known as Kautilya, was adviser and prime minister[7] to the first Maurya Emperor Chandragupta (c. 340–293 BC). Kautilya suggested employing means such as seduction, secret use of weapons, and poison for political gain.[8] He also urged detailed precautions against assassination—tasters for food and elaborate ways to detect poison.[9] In addition, the death penalty for violations of royal decrees was frequently administered through the use of poison.[10]

An example of a flint sword and spear, weapons used for hunting in ancient times.


Unlike many civilizations, records of Egyptian knowledge and use of poisons can only be dated back to approximately 300 BC. However, it is believed that the earliest known Egyptian pharaoh, Menes, studied the properties of poisonous plants and venoms, according to early records.[3]

The Egyptians are also thought to have come into knowledge about elements such as antimony, copper, crude arsenic, lead, opium, and mandrake (among others) which are mentioned in papyri. Egyptians are now thought to be the first to master distillation, and to manipulate the poison that can be retrieved from apricot kernels.[3]

Cleopatra is said to have poisoned herself with an asp after hearing of Marc Antony's demise. Prior to her death, she was said to have sent many of her maidservants to act as guinea pigs to test different poisons, including belladonna, henbane, and the strychnine tree's seed.[11]

After this, the alchemist Agathodaemon (around AD 300) spoke of a mineral that when mixed with natron produced a 'fiery poison'. He described this poison as 'disappearing in water', giving a clear solution.[12] Emsley speculates that the 'fiery poison' was arsenic trioxide, the unidentified mineral having to have been either realgar or orpiment, due to the relation between the unidentified mineral and his other writings.[12]


A bust of the Roman Emperor Nero, who used cyanide to dispose of unwanted family members

In Roman times, poisoning carried out at the dinner table or common eating or drinking area was not unheard of, or even uncommon, and was happening as early as 331 BC.[3] These poisonings would have been used for self-advantageous reasons in every class of the social order. The writer Livy describes the poisoning of members of the upper class and nobles of Rome, and Roman emperor Nero is known to have favored the use of poisons on his relatives, even hiring a personal poisoner. His preferred enema poison was said to be cyanide.[3]

Nero's predecessor, Claudius, was allegedly poisoned with mushrooms or alternatively poison herbs.[13] However, accounts of the way Claudius died vary greatly. Halotus, his taster, Gaius Stertinius Xenophon, his doctor, and the infamous poisoner Locusta have all been accused of possibly being the administrator of the fatal substance, but Agrippina, his final wife, is considered to be the most likely to have arranged his murder and may have even administered the poison herself. Some report that he died after prolonged suffering following a single dose at his evening meal, while some say that he recovered somewhat, only to be poisoned once more by a feather dipped in poison which was pushed down his throat under the pretense of helping him to vomit,[14] or by poisoned gruel or an enema.[13] Agrippina is considered to be the murderer, because she was ambitious for her son, Nero, and Claudius had become suspicious of her intrigues.[15]

Later imperial Asia[edit]

Despite the negative effects of poison, which were so evident in these times, cures were being found in poison, even at such a time where it was hated by the most of the general public. An example can be found in the works of Iranian born Persian physician, philosopher, and scholar Rhazes, writer of Secret of Secrets, which was a long list of chemical compounds, minerals and apparatus, the first man to distil alcohol and use it as an anti-septic, and the person who suggested mercury be used as a laxative. He made discoveries relating to a mercury chloride called corrosive sublimate. An ointment derived from this sublimate was used to cure what Rhazes described as 'the itch', which is now referred to as scabies. This proved an effective treatment because of mercury's poisonous nature and ability to penetrate the skin, allowing it to eliminate the disease and the itch.[16]

Nazi suicides by poison[edit]

Nazi war leader Hermann Göring used cyanide to kill himself the night before he was supposed to be hanged during the Nuremberg trials.[17] Adolf Hitler had also taken a pill of cyanide but he bit down on the capsule and shot himself in the right temple shortly before the fall of Berlin along with his wife, Eva Braun.[18]

Present day[edit]

Poison/Drug Antidote
paracetamol (acetaminophen) N-acetylcysteine[19]
vitamin K anticoagulants, e.g. warfarin vitamin K, Protamine[19]
narcotics/opioids naloxone[20]
iron (and other heavy metals) deferoxamine[19]
benzodiazepines flumazenil[19]
ethylene glycol ethanol or fomepizole[20]
methanol ethanol or fomepizole[20][21]
cyanide amyl nitrite, sodium nitrite, and sodium thiosulfate[19][22]

In the late 20th century, an increasing number of products used for everyday life proved to be poisonous. The risk of being poisoned nowadays lies more in the accidental factor, where poison be induced or taken by accident. Poisoning is the 4th most common cause of death within young people. Accidental ingestions are most common in children less than 5 years old.

However, hospital and emergency facilities are much enhanced compared to the first half of the 20th century and before, and antidotes are more available. Antidotes have been found for many poisons, and the antidotes for some of the most commonly known poisons are shown in the table above:

However, poison still exists as a murderous entity today, but it is not as popular form of conducting murder as it used to be in past times, probably because of the wider range of ways to kill people, better detection, and other factors that must be taken into consideration. One of the more recent deaths by poisoning was that of Russian dissident Alexander Litvinenko in 2006 from lethal polonium-210 radiation poisoning.[23]

A cropduster spreading pesticide.

Other uses[edit]

Today, poison is used for a wider variety of purposes than it used to be. For example, poison can be used to rid an unwanted infestation by pests or to kill weeds. Such chemicals, known as pesticides,[24] have been known to be used in some form since about 2500 BC. However, the use of pesticides has increased staggeringly from 1950, and presently approximately 2.5 million tons of industrial pesticides are used each year.[25] Other poisons can also be used to preserve foods and building material.

In culture[edit]

Today, in many developing peoples of countries such as certain parts of Africa, South America and Asia, the use of poison as an actual weapon of hunting and attack still endures.

In Africa, certain arrow poisons are made using floral ingredients, such as of that taken from the plant Acokanthera. This plant contains ouabain, which is a cardiac glycoside, oleander, and milkweeds.[26] Poisoned arrows are also still used in the jungle areas of Assam, Burma and Malaysia. The ingredients for the creation of these poisons are mainly extracted from plants of the Antiaris, Strychnos and Strophanthus genera, and Antiaris toxicaria (a tree of the mulberry and breadfruit family), for example, is used in the Java island of Indonesia, as well as several of its surrounding islands. The juice or liquid extracts are smeared on the head of the arrow, and inflicts the target paralysis, convulsions and/or cardiac arrest, virtually on strike due to the speed in which the extracts can affect a victim.[27]

As well as plant based poisons, there are others that are made that are based on animals. For example, the larva or pupae of a beetle genus of the Northern Kalahari Desert is used to create a slow-acting poison that can be quite useful when hunting. The beetle itself is applied to the arrow head, by squeezing the contents of the beetle right onto the head. Plant sap is then mixed and serves as an adhesive. However, instead of the plant sap, a powder made from the dead, eviscerated larva can be used.[28]

See also[edit]

References and notes[edit]

  1. ^ Poison is defined as a "substance that causes death or injury when swallowed or absorbed." Colins Dictionaries, from the Bank of English (2001). Collins English Dictionary. HarperCollins. p. 594. ISBN 0-00-766691-8.
  2. ^ Siek B, Rys A, Sein Anand J. Najbardzie; popularne trucizny świata grecko-rzymskiego [The most popular poisons from Graeco-Roman world]., Przegl Lek. 2013;70(8):643-6. Polish. PMID = 24466710.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Ancient poisons". Archived from the original on 21 March 2007. Retrieved 1 April 2007.
  4. ^ Grout, James. Mithridatum (June 2008). Retrieved on 29 April 2007.
  5. ^ Wujastyk, D. et al. The Roots of Ayurveda: Selections from Sanskrit Medical Writings. ISBN 0-14-044824-1. p. 144
  6. ^ a b Chatterjee, Hiralal. International Law and Inter-state Relations in Ancient India (1958). K. L. Mukhopadhyay. p. 104
  7. ^ Boesche, Roger (January 2003). "Kautilya's Arthaśāstra on War and Diplomacy in Ancient India". The Journal of Military History. 67 (1): 9–37. doi:10.1353/jmh.2003.0006. "Kautilya is sometimes called a chancellor or prime minister to Chandragupta, something like a Bismarck…"
  8. ^ Chamola, S.D. Kautilya Arthshastra and the Science of Management: Relevance for the Contemporary Society ISBN 81-7871-126-5. p. 40
  9. ^ Boesche, Roger (September 2002). "Moderate Machiavelli: Contrasting The Prince with the Arthashastra of Kautilya". Critical Horizons. 3 (2). Brill Academic Publishers: 253. doi:10.1163/156851602760586671. ISSN 1440-9917. S2CID 153703219.
  10. ^ Archer, Christon I. World History of Warfare (2002). University of Nebraska Press. ISBN 0-8032-4423-1. p. 48
  11. ^ Magic and Medicine of Plants. Pleasantville, N.Y: Reader's Digest Association. 1986. p. 389. ISBN 0-89577-221-3.
  12. ^ a b Emsley, pp. 2–3
  13. ^ a b Suetonius, Claudius
  14. ^ Tacitus; Annals XII p. 64, pp. 66–67;
  15. ^ Accounts of his death: Suetonius Claudius p. 43–44; Tacitus; Annals XII 64, pp. 66–67; Pliny the Elder Natural History II p. 92, XI p. 189, XXII p. 92.
  16. ^ Emsley, pp. 3–4
  17. ^ The Sentencing and Execution of Nazi War Criminals, 1946. Retrieved on 3 April 2007.
  18. ^ "How Hitler Died". Time magazine. 28 June 2007. Archived from the original on 29 June 2007. Retrieved 19 October 2022.
  19. ^ a b c d e Poison Antidotes Archived 10 April 2007 at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved on 21 April 2007.
  20. ^ a b c Emergency Medical Department. Retrieved 21 May 2007. Archived 9 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine
  21. ^ Mycyk MB, Leikin JB (2003). "Antidote review: fomepizole for methanol poisoning". American Journal of Therapeutics. 10 (1): 68–70. doi:10.1097/00045391-200301000-00015. PMID 12522524.
  22. ^ For a study by the IPCS on antidotes of cyanide, see this study.
  23. ^ Litvinenko, Alexander. "HPA Press Release". Health Protection Agency. Archived from the original on 26 November 2006. Retrieved 10 January 2008.
  24. ^ What is a Pesticide? (US EPA definitions) retrieved 24 June 2006
  25. ^ Miller, G. Tyler Jr. (2002). Living in the Environment (12th Ed.). Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
  26. ^ "African arrow poison ingredients". Retrieved 28 April 2007.
  27. ^ "Poisoned Arrows". Retrieved 30 April 2007.
  28. ^ "Animal Based Poisons Today – Kalahari Beetle". Archived from the original on 26 April 2007. Retrieved 30 April 2007.

Further reading[edit]

  • Eleanor Herman (2018). The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 978-1250140869.

External links[edit]