Molecules of Murder with Dr John Emsley

This item first appeared in 2008

Event review: A pleasantly gruesome evening

Dr John Emsley led the Cambridge Regional Group on a jolly romp through the grisly world of poisons on 9 October 2008. He described five natural and five man-made poisons, then anecdotes about how they have been used - successfully and otherwise. He related the stories of famous malefactors (including Dr Crippen and Harold Shipman) and their victims (including Georgi Markov, poisoned by the Bulgarian secret service using ricin delivered via a rolled-up umbrella, and Alexander Litvinenko, who succumbed to polonium-210 in November 2006).

John Emsley went on to review his earlier book Elements of Murder, which focuses on arsenic, antimony, mercury, thallium and lead. Early forensic toxicology was illustrated in the case of the Marquise de Brinvilliers, 1676, who had poisoned her father and brother with white arsenic. The white powder she had used was examined by an apothecary, Guy Simon. After several inconclusive experiments (mixing it with water and heating it) he tested its toxicity by feeding it to a pigeon, a cat and a dog. The results were conclusive. They all died and the Marquise was eventually tried and sentenced to death.

He closed the lecture with a tribute to and a call to arms for chemistry (with Land of Hope and Glory as background music), stressing the massive contribution chemists have made to society and the importance of our role in the future. He emphasised the urgent need to get out and communicate this message to a wider audience. A gripping lecture and very well attended. The Pfizer lecture theatre was full (about 150).

For more information about Dr Emsley’s other books see his entry on the Cambridge University website. Dr Emsley was also awarded the SCI Science Communication Award in 2006.

Two RSC staff sold copies of his excellent accompanying book of the same title (Molecule of Murder – Criminal molecules and Classic cases, RSC Publishing, £14.95) for signing. Great Christmas presents!

Thanks to all who attended.

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