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Poison is Everything

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Hello High Plains Radio Book Club Listeners. My name is Nina Blakeman and I’m the author of the Blow-up Man, a fictional thriller that takes place in a dispirited region of West Texas. I want to discuss with the listeners the scientific angle taken in the book.  Having a doctorate in pharmaceutical science, I’m fascinated in a compound’s ability to first, do nothing. Secondly, possess a moderating or curative effect, or thirdly, be lethal.

In pharmacology, it’s termed the dose response relationship. To further explain, I’d like to share one of my favorite quotes from Paracelsus, a 16th century alchemist and Renaissance physician., “Poison is everything, and no thing is without poison. The dosage makes it either a poison or a remedy.” With this we learn that one acetaminophen tablet kills the headache, 100 tablets kill you. Another quote of the alchemist states,” What the eyes perceive in herbs or stones or trees in not yet a remedy; the eyes see only dross.”

So, to explain this, let me take you back to the plains and something called sweet clover disease. In the 1920’s cattle were dying from hemorrhage after eating hay infected with mold. Coumarin, a natural substance found in many plants was becoming oxidized through the mold to dicoumarol (Lim, Gregory B., 2017). How was this discovered? It was snowy day when a Wisconsin farmer named Ed Carlson walked into the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a bucket of his dead cow’s blood and serendipitously ran into a biochemist named Link who isolated the coumarin derivative (WARF, n.d). The compound was trade named Coumadin, generic warfarin, to prevent unwarranted blood coagulation.  But it wasn’t initially approved for that-it was approved for use as a rat poison. So, from this example it is seen that a natural product in sweet clover hay can be modified to an effective poison or a therapeutic agent.

Coumarin is a fragrant substance, like fresh-mowed hay and can be found in lavender, Cassia cinnamon, Tonka Beans, and Mexican vanilla. Although, I find the toxic effects of the coumarins interesting, I think I’m most intrigued by the alkaloids, basically a nitrogen containing compound. Some famous alkaloids are morphine, strychnine, and ephedrine. Other interesting alkaloids are monkshood or wolfsbane, or bufotoxin found on the back of toads. If you are into toad licking, yes this is a thing, the toad secretes the alkaloid from its parotid gland on the back of its head. The effects vary from toad to toad and produce various symptoms, ranging from nausea, psychedelic effects, and even death. I don’t recommend it. Another interesting alkaloid is tubocurarine (curare) used by the indigenous people of South America on darts to arrest the prey’s respiration resulting in asphyxiation.

For High Plains Public Radio, I’m Nina Blakeman


Lim Gregory B. (2017) Warfarin: from rat poison to clinical use, (2017) Nature Reviews Cardiology, https://www.nature.com/articles/nrcardio.2017.172

Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF) (n.d.) Retrieved October 25, 2018, from https://www.warf.org/news-media/news/in-the-news/how-dead-cattle-led-to-the-discovery-of-warfarin.cmsx