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MCDB 3700 Poisons in Cell Biology and Society (Su) - Rare and Distinctive Collections Visit

A guide to view some historical documents related to poisons and their relationship with society.

Poisons from Class

The following sources all correspond to poisons that you have or will study in your class. These older documents provide context so that you can understand how societies have reacted to these poisons over time.

Chemical Weapons (Mustard Gas, Sarin, etc.)

Chemical weapons were first used in World War I to devastating effects. The following documents highlight the social impact of mustard gas and sarin on the general population, particularly at the start of World War II. 


Nigel B. Cook, Medical Manual of Defense Against Chemical Agents, 1972.
Although this pamphlet was published in 1972, it includes many extracts from British civil defense and military manuals from the 1930s and 1940s, around the time of World War II.

Nigel B. Cook (various British government publications related to chemical weapons primarily from the 20th century bound together).
This document includes a variety of British government publications related to chemical weapons from the 20th century. The book opens to a few pictures from the time of World War II. If you flip to the right, you will also see a 1938 article about chemical weapons.

Cardiotoxins and Hemotoxins

Early scientists in England and America often wrote on the topic of viper and rattlesnake venom, documenting their understanding of its symptoms, mechanism, and giving possible cures. The following three sources highlight this topic from the 1700s and 1800s. To see some 19th-century remedies for such snake bites, see the "Medical Texts" tab.

Richard Mead, A Mechanical Account of Poisons in Several Essays (1747)

Richard Mead's work titled A Mechanical Account of Poisons in Several Essays became a classic work on poisons, published in a variety of editions in the early 1700s. Notice that this book sometimes uses an old symbol called the “long s” that looks like ſ or ʃ (it is an “s,” not an “f”).

The book opens to pages 8 and 9, which list symptoms of viper bites. Note that you can turn the pages forward or backwards by clicking on the sides of the pages.

"Snake bite and its antidote: experiments with Crotalus venom and reputed antidotes, with notes on the saliva of Heloderma ('Gila monster')," Forest and Stream (1888).

This text, an offprint of an early journal article, provides case studies relating to venom experiments.








S. W. Mitchell, Researches upon the venom of the rattlesnake : with an investigation of the anatomy and physiology of the organs concerned. Smithsonian Institution, Washington: Smithsonian Institution, 1860.

This book from 1860 is a detailed study of rattlesnake venom done by scientists at the Smithsonian. Look particularly at p. 67 (shown below), highlighting an experiment of the poison's effects on pigeons. 

Heavy Metals



Minamata disease is caused by extreme mercury poisoning and is named after the city of Minamata, Japan. First identified in 1956, it was soon discovered that the Chisso Corporation was polluting the city's bay with mercury, which people then ingested when they consumed the local fish.

In the early 1970s, W. Eugene Smith and Aileen Smith lived in Minamata and documented the dramatic effects this disease had on the people of the town. Children were particularly susceptible to mercury poisoning's effects (and were often born with birth defects). 


Johann Friedrich Closs, A new method of curing the small-pox; by which that disease ... is rendered as void of danger as when received from inoculation ... (1774)





Read about the use of cantharidins to mitigate the effects of smallpox in this 1774 work. The link opens to pages 10 and 11, which describe using cantharidins to treat smallpox blisters.

Link directly to the digital book

"A Case of Poisoning by Cantharides," The American Journal of the Medical Sciences, 1828, V. 2, p. 368-373

The following short article describes the detailed observations of a poisoning incident with cantharidin that led to death in the early 1800s.


Rare and Distinctive Collections


Classroom: Norlin N345

Reading Room: Norlin M350B



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