The Dark, Magical and Mysterious Power of Poison

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Witches brew from Macbeth This life-size diorama re-creates a famous scene in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth that features a trio of witches dropping gruesome ingredients into a boiling cauldron. (©AMNH/R. Mickens)

Poison protects animals, kills people, and cures diseases — and now it's the theme of a new show at the American Museum of Natural History.

To enter the exhibit, visitors walk through a jungle-like room with a live, tiny, yellow frog that is one of the most poisonous creatures on earth. Other highlights include large insects and scenes from Shakespeare's Macbeth and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland that feature poisons.

Mark Siddall, the curator of the show, explained that one of the things he learned about poison is that there is a disconnect between the effective dosage of a particular toxin and the lethal dose, like with the magic mushroom.

"The dosage you have to take in order to have a probability of dying from magic mushrooms would be the equivalent of eating 15 pound of magic mushrooms in one seating," he said. "I am not recommending that anybody try that."

Below, Siddall discusses other things that surprised him about poison. 

Mark Siddall on poison

Anthony Rivello, a fifth grader at PS 87 on the Upper West Side, said he was excited to check out the "enchanted book," which is a replica of a 16th century book, enhanced with touch-screen technology, that explains the poisons of some plants.

"I liked how you can touch on it, and it seems like magic kind of, like you can flip the pages, turn into a different page, and you can click on stuff, and it will show a different story," he said.

The Power of Poison is on view until August of next year.

© AMNH/T. Grant
The skin of the Golden Poison Frog (Phyllobates terribilis) is, ounce for ounce, one of the most toxic substances on earth.

The exhibition includes a life-sized scene of the Mad Hatter from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The saying “mad as a hatter” dates back to the 19th century, when mercuric nitrate was used in the millinery industry to turn fur into felt. Hatters working in poorly ventilated factories breathed in toxic fumes, and prolonged exposure led to mercury poisoning with symptoms—such as trembling, memory loss, depression, irritability, and anxiety—that are still described as “mad hatter’s disease.”

©AMNH/R. Mickens
The “enchanted” book resembles an ancient botanical volume and displays animations of well-known poisonous plant species, including belladonna and monkshood.
©AMNH/D. Finnin
Life-size walkthrough environment of a remote Colombian forest called Chocó.
©AMNH/R. Mickens
Flame butterfly caterpillar (Dryas iulia)

After a series of military defeats, Napoleon Bonaparte, famed general and emperor of France, spent his last years in exile on the island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic. Although he believed he was being poisoned by his British captors, an autopsy after his death pointed to stomach cancer. Researchers today still debate whether toxic metals may indeed have hastened his death.


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