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Chapter: Modern Medical Toxicology: General Principles: Introduction

Historical Overview - Toxicology

The history of poisons and poisoning dates back several thou-sand years.


The history of poisons and poisoning dates back several thou-sand years. Early poisons were almost exclusively plant and animal toxins, and some minerals. They were used mainly for hunting. Some were used as “ordeal poisons*,” for e.g. phys-ostigmine from Physostigma venenosum (Calabar bean), and amygdalin from peach pits. Arrow and dart poisons were very popular for hunting animals (and sometimes fellow humans). In fact it is said that the term “toxicology” is derived from toxicon, a Greek word which when translated reads, “poisoninto which arrowheads are dipped”. Common arrow poisons included strophanthin, aconitine, and extracts from Helleborus (a cardiotoxic plant), and snake venom.

One of the earliest classifications of poisons was done by the Greek physician Dioscorides (AD 40–80) who catego-rised poisons into 3 groups—animal, vegetable, and mineral. Experimental toxicology perhaps began with Nicander (204–135 BC), another Greek physician who experimented with animal poisons using condemned criminals as subjects. An early treatise on plant poisons is De Historia Plantarum, by Theophrastus (370–286 BC). The ancient Indian text RigVeda (12thcentury BC) also describes several plant poisons.The Greeks used some plant toxins as poisons of execution. Socrates (470–399 BC) was executed by the administrationof hemlock.

Among mineral poisons, one of the earliest known elements was lead which was discovered as early as 3500 BC. Apart from its extensive use in plumbing, lead was also employed in the production of vessels and containers, which led to widespread chronic health problems. During the Roman period, lead acetate was widely used as a sweetening agent for wine resulting in a high incidence of plumbism, particularly among members of the aristocracy. In fact, the fall of the Roman empire is attributed to the debilitating effects of this scourge.

Homicidal poisoning has also had a hoary past. One of the earliest laws against the murderous use of poisons was the Lex Cornelia passed in Rome in 81 BC. After the fall of the Roman empire, there was a lull in the development of Toxicology until 1198, when Moses Maimonides published his classic work Treatise on Poisons and Their Antidotes. Then came the Renaissance toxicologists—Paracelsus (1493–1541), Ambroise Pare (1510–1590), and William Piso (1611–1678).Paracelsus’ study on the dose-response relationship is generally considered as the first time that a scientific approach was made in the field of toxicology.

Development of toxicology as a distinct speciality began in earnest in the 18th and 19th centuries with the pioneering work of Bonaventure Orfila (1787–1853), who is generally regarded as the father of modern toxicology. He advocated the practice of autopsy followed by chemical analysis of viscera to prove that poisoning had taken place. His treatise Traite des Poisons published in 1814 laid the foundations of forensic toxicology. In 1829, one of his students, Robert Christison (1797-1882) published a simplified English version titled A Treatise on Poisons. The first published work on clinical toxicology was  A Practical Treatise on Poisons written by O Costill, and published in 1848.

Subsequent to World War II, the role of Poison ControlCentres began to be increasingly recognised in the prevention and treatment of poisoning, as well as in disseminating accurate information on toxicological matters to medical professionals and the general public.

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