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

A guide to view some historical documents related to poisons and their relationship with society.

Poison Mortality

The following documents are all mortality charts. The first two are from London (one from the 1600s and one from the 1800s) and the final chart is from the modern U.S. As will become quite clear, terminology has radically changed over the past 400 years. While poison doesn't always show up directly in older documents, what other causes of death may have been related to poisonings? Why do you think poisonings were so hard to account for in the pre-modern world?

Mortality Tables for London

London's Dreadful Visitation: Or, A Collection of All the Bills of Mortality (London, 1666).

Europe's last major plague outbreak tied to the Black Death occurred in London in 1665. In this mortality table for 1665, most deaths are obviously caused by this outbreak, but there are other causes of death listed as well. Many of them will likely be unfamiliar to you. Check out the Mental Floss article below to understand some of the terms in this chart. 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”).

London Mortality Table, 1842

The following document is a London Mortality Table for 1842. Zoom in to the left side of the document to read the causes of death. Notice the differences from the 1665 tables when it comes to classification and medical standardization.

Can you find any poisons? Where else might poisons be found in the listed causes of death?

Modern Poison Mortality

The following chart from the CDC shows modern deaths by injury, including poisonings, in the US in 2017.

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