Arsenic is a chemical substance well known for its highly lethal characteristics throughout history. It dates back to the 13th century when it was discovered in 1250 by the German scholar Albertus Magnus. However, various mineral forms of arsenic were known to the humans right from the fourth-century BC.
Many deadly circumstance allegedly related to arsenic poisoning have been reported like the death of French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, and Arctic Explorer Charles Francis Hall. Claire Booth Luce, the United States ambassador to Italy died by consuming food contaminated with arsenic based paint flaked from her office ceiling. In 1998, mass arsenic poisoning at a village festival was reported in Japan.
Arsenic is devoid of color, odor and taste. It was one of the most commonly used homicide weapon since the early ages. Its properties have made it an idle choice of poison, for people belonging to all walks of life, to take revenge, execute criminals, or, simply put, kill someone.
Sometimes, a series of low dosages was used to cause a chronic poisining, which weakens the victim leading to confusion and paralysis. In the Middle Ages, Paracelsus, the father of modern toxicology documented steps for the preparation of metallic arsenic.
A single dose of white arsenic or arsenic trioxide (As2O3) containing an amount equivalent to the size of a pea is considered fatal. Arsenic cannot be detected when mixed with food, and it initially causes vomiting, diarrhea, stomach pains, which are easily confused with the symptoms of food poisoning. It will eventually cause shock and ultimately lead to death.
The use of arsenic was common during the Roman Empire through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance that people often doubted the natural death of any king or members of the royal family. The early Roman kingdom recorded a large-scale use of poisons in many conspiracies. Many women used the deadly weapon against their husbands in order to gain financial benefits. Toffana and Hieronyma Spara were two infamous women who incited the illegal use of arsenic among women. The use of arsenic in cosmetics for homicide has been in vogue even in the twentieth century.
Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a Roman ruler and a well-known reformer issued the law, Lex Cornelia, against poisoning, which is considered to be first of its kind.
The infamous trio Borgias, Pope Alexander VI, and his son, Cesare executed a series of well planned killings using the potential of arsenic, to acquire wealth and power in Italy during the Middle Ages. The involvement of Caesar’s half-sister, Lucretia, in this incident is still being debated. The Cardinals appointed by Pope Alexander VI were said to have been motivated to increase their wealth. After acquiring enormous wealth, they were invited by the Borgias to attend a stupendous meal where they were offered wine laced with arsenic. Eventually, the Borgias’ son became the most powerful man in Italy. Caesar was appointed as the capital general of the papal army. The three successful marriages of his sister Lucretia with wealthy men further increased their assets and fame.
However, a humble servant’s mistake caused the fall of their dynasty. The servant gave the mistaken wine to his masters. Pope died, while Caesar was said to have escaped death by following an ancient superstition of entering an animal body to subside the effects of poison. This infamous murderous scandal seems to be the origin of the phrase ‘the gift of the Borgias’, in which the word ‘gift’ in Germany means poison and suffering.
Around the mid-nineteenth century, mountaineers of Styria had the unusual habit of building up tolerance to arsenic by consuming very small doses over a long period. They were known as ‘arsenic eaters,’ and their increased tolerance allegedly helped them protect themselves against their enemies.
With advancements in research and technology, arsenic history of highly lethal characteristics found a place in many commercial and useful products. It is widely used as a pesticide, rat poisons, and wood preservatives and as pigments in paints, wall papers and ceramics.
Arsenic in the beginning of the twentieth century found its way into medical uses, when the German pharmacologist, Paul Ehrlich discovered the drug; Salvarsan made with arsenic compounds to treat syphilis. Salvarsan was pushed out of existence after the discovery of penicillin.
Fowler’s Solution, another medicinal drug containing one-percent potassium arsenite was used to treat psoriasis. There were other arsenide based medical drugs used for various infections, which were eventually replaced with antibiotics.
In 1940, Germans developed the organic gas, Lewisite, containing arsenic that causes huge blisters on the skin on contact. The Germans intended to use it as a war weapon. In order to counter the reactions, the British developed the dimercaprol nick named then as British Anti-Lewisite, a sulphur compound that acts as an antidote for arsenic poisoning. Dimercaprol is also used for poisoning by other metals like gold and mercury.
Written by: Janet Grace Ortigas