A soupcon of toxins

Death in the Pot

November 16, 2007

For nearly 30 years I have been associated with Aberdeen University. Its foundation document is a Bull of February 10, 1495, from Pope Alexander VI, Roderigo Borgia. It is reasonable to say that the association has been a difficult one to handle. All universities like to present their past in a celebratory fashion. But to have one's initiation signalled by an act of such an outrageously unsatisfactory person still needs careful handling. Not only was he the father of four, but his daughter was Lucrezia, the arch-poisoner.

I was surprised to find no account of such a notorious historical figure in Morton Satin's book. Her omission might have come because of the paucity of facts relating to Lucrezia's nefarious activities - which come to a much greater degree from Victor Hugo's fiction than anywhere else - but I doubt it, because about half of the book is concerned with food poisoning in biblical times, the Roman Empire, Ancient Greece and the Middle Ages, considerations that are of necessity speculative. Neither was her absence due to the possibility that her notoriety was, and is, undeserved, because one of the best sections of the book is a rehabilitation of the reputation of Mary Mallon - "Typhoid Mary". She was a domestic cook who emigrated from Ireland to the US as a teenager. Implicated as the cause of 47 cases of typhoid fever (with three deaths) because she was an asymptomatic carrier of the organism, she spent the last 23 years of her life incarcerated by the New York Department of Health in its Riverside Quarantine Hospital. Satin does an excellent job in describing the feebleness of the microbiological evidence that led to her imprisonment for life without trial or the right of appeal.

Lucrezia Borgia stimulated lurid stories. But Satin's book gives accounts of many other events that are even more outrageous, so her absence from the book is easily explained; whatever she did in her short life cannot match, for example, the story that it tells of Sir John Franklin's attempt to traverse the North West Passage in HMS Erebus and Terror . His 128 officers and men were last seen near Baffin Island on July 26, 1845, two months after sailing from London with a five-year food supply. But the canning had been defective, and lead had probably leached into the food. Years later an expedition found strong evidence of cannibalism: it is very likely that scurvy finally overwhelmed those who had consumed their colleagues.

Satin brings such horrors up to date with accounts of the 1985 Austrian wine antifreeze scandal, E. coli 0157 in US burgers, the assassination of Georgi Markov with ricin and that of Alexander Litvinenko with polonium- 210 in 2006. His case studies are suitable for the general reader. I recommend that they be consumed after food.

Hugh Pennington is emeritus professor of bacteriology, Aberdeen University. He is chair of the public inquiry into the 2005 E. coli outbreak in South Wales.

Death in the Pot: The Impact of Food Poisoning on History

Author - Morton Satin
Publisher - Prometheus Books
Pages - 258
Price - £11.54
ISBN - 9781591025146

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