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Strictly strychnine: one person's drug is another's poison--depending on the dose.

Alfred Inglethorp was up on his chemistry. He knew that strychnine sulfate was soluble in water whereas strychnine bromide was not. When his wife was prescribed a dilute solution of the sulfate as a heart stimulant by her physician, he put his knowledge to use. Alfred had plotted to marry the rich but somewhat foolish lady, induce her to make a will naming him as beneficiary, murder her and run away with his mistress accomplice. The strychnine prescription presented him with a glorious opportunity. Mrs. Inglethorp sometimes used bromide salts to help her sleep, and it was a simple matter for Alfred to add some of these to the strychnine sulfate solution. The result was the formation of a precipitate of strychnine bromide that settled to the bottom of the bottle. So, when Mrs. Inglethorp thought she was dosing herself with medicine, she was only pouring off the supernatant liquid. Then when she got down to the bottom of the bottle, she took a concentrated slurry of strychnine bromide, which proved to be lethal-Why didn't she notice the difference in consistency? I think the reason is simple. That would have ruined this wonderful Agatha Christie story!

The Mysterious Affair at Styles, written in 1920, was Dame Christie's first full length novel. It introduced Hercule Poirot, destined to become the second most famous detective in literary history. The dapper little Belgian, who relied on his famous "little gray cells" rather than on brawn to catch criminals, proved to be very adept at chemistry and figured out Inglethorp's dastardly scheme. This should come as no surprise because Agatha Christie was trained as a pharmacist and her science was very sound! The chemistry involved in the precipitation of strychnine bromide is realistic, as is the use of strychnine as a tonic. The description of strychnine poisoning she provides is also accurate.

Just mention "strychnine," and people immediately think "poison." Justifiably so. Of course, one person's poison can be another's drug; it all depends on the dose. Strychnine is a naturally occurring compound found extensively in the seeds of the fruit of the nux vomica tree and has long been used both as a poison and as a drug. Cleopatra supposedly investigated the seeds in her search for a perfect suicidal poison. She had prisoners and slaves swallow the seeds to see how quickly they would die. Death was fast enough, but Cleo was disturbed by the convulsions and distorted facial features that strychnine produced. She wanted her beauty preserved even after death and decided that the venom of an asp was the way to go. The spasms with arching of the back that Cleopatra feared so much are typical of strychnine poisoning. Indeed it was just such a seizure that led Mrs. Ingelthorp's physician to suspect strychnine as the cause of her death.

Strychnine, in tiny doses of course, has been used over the years as a heart stimulant and as a digestive aid, although with no established efficacy. Adolf Hitler suffered from chronic gas pains for which his physician, a semi-quack by the name of Theo Morell, prescribed "Dr. Koester's Antigas pills." These contained both atropine and strychnine, although unfortunately there was not very much strychnine in the product. But there certainly was enough strychnine in the pills that Dr. Neill Cream prescribed for sickly Daniel Stott in Chicago back in the 1880s. Cream had graduated with a medical degree from McGill University in 1876 and set up a practice in London, ON. His reputation took a beating when a young woman on whom he had performed an abortion was found dead near his office, presumably from an overdose of chloroform. Although an inquest did not implicate Cream, he left London and set up shop in Chicago.

Here he began to advertise a patent medicine for epilepsy that led to a meeting with the young wife of Daniel Stott. A romantic entanglement followed. Then suddenly Stott died, some fifteen minutes after taking a pill given him by Cream. The coroner determined that the cause of death was an epileptic seizure, but the arrogant Cream, confident he had committed the perfect crime, wrote a letter to the coroner accusing the dispensing pharmacist of having added strychnine to the pills! This prompted an autopsy that did indeed reveal the presence of the poison. Authorities, though, got suspicious when they found that Cream and Mrs. Stott had taken out life insurance on the victim. Finally the widow, perhaps feeling some remorse, testified that the two had indeed plotted to kill her husband. Vestiges of Alfred Ingelthorp! Cream was tried and sentenced to life.

Under mysterious circumstances--some suggest bribery--he was released in 1891 for "good behaviour." We next encounter him in London, England, where he becomes linked with the death of a number of prostitutes. One of these ladies, in the midst of her death throes, described how a man fitting the description of Dr. Cream had given her some "white medicine." Once again, an autopsy showed the presence of strychnine. The cavalier Cream now offered his services to the coroner to bring the criminal to justice. This aroused suspicion and the doctor was put under surveillance. He was finally arrested when a policeman saw him leave a house where two other prostitutes were found poisoned. A chemist then identified Cream as the man to whom he had sold strychnine. It only took a jury ten minutes to sentence the villain to the gallows.

When the trapdoor opened, Cream stunned the crowd as he shouted "I am Jack ..." He never got to finish his sentence, but there has been speculation ever since that the man who was hung that day was the notorious Jack the Ripper! We'll never know. But one description of the Ripper has him sporting a horseshoe-shaped tie pin. And an old McGill class photo of Dr. Cream shows him wearing just such a pin.

Popular science writer, Joe Schwarcz, MCIC, is the director of McGill University's Office for Science and Society. He hosts the Dr. Joe Show every Sunday from 3:00 to 4:00 p.m. on Montreal's radio station CJAD. The broadcast is available on the Web at You can contact him at
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Title Annotation:Chemfusion
Author:Schwarcz, Joe
Publication:Canadian Chemical News
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Oct 1, 2004
Previous Article:Can you see what you're doing?
Next Article:Ethics and social responsibility in the life sciences.

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