Tiny Matters

A science podcast about things small in size but big in impact. Every other Wednesday, join hosts Sam Jones and Deboki Chakravarti as they unpack the little things that make the big things in our world (both good and bad) possible.

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At the beginning of the 1900s, New York City was in turmoil. Prohibition loomed, outbreaks of typhoid and an influenza pandemic had people on edge, and the city was steeped in corruption. One of the many consequences of that corruption was a completely inept coroners office.

Instead of having trained medical examiners work out the causes of sudden and suspicious deaths, New York City coroners were politically appointed. And they didn’t have the slightest idea of how to do a thorough autopsy. They were sign painters and milkmen and funeral home operators and people who had done favors for the party. They bungled the cause of death so consistently and so dramatically that the police and the district attorney's office told coroners to stay away from their crime scenes.

This was a horrific situation, unless you were a poisoner. In January, 1915, New York City’s government released a report saying that murderers were easily escaping justice and that “skillful poisoning can be carried on almost with impunity.”

In this episode of Tiny Matters, Sam and Deboki chat with Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Deborah Blum, the author of The Poisoner’s Handbook, about the rise of forensic toxicology in the United States. Listeners will be taken on a journey through some of the disturbing poisoning cases of the time that helped lay the groundwork for the field — with a focus on arsenic, radium and cyanide — and the pivot role medical examiner Charles Norris and chemist Alexander Gettler played in restoring public safety and finally stopping poisoners in their tracks.


Sam Jones, PhD

Sam Jones, PhD

Science Writer & Exec Producer

Deboki Chakravarti, PhD

Deboki Chakravarti, PhD

Science Writer & Co-Host

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