Deborah Blum - Murder and Chemistry in Jazz Age New York

April 23, 2010

Host: Chris Mooney

For many of us, chemistry is something we remember with groans from high school. Periodic Table of the Elements—what a pain to memorize, and what was the point, anyway?

So how do you take a subject like chemistry and make it exciting, intriguing, and compelling?

With her new book The Poisoner’s Handbook, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Deb Blum has done just that. Blum takes a page from the "CSI" franchise, and moves that familiar narrative of crime, intrigue, and high tech bad-guy catching back into the early days of the 20th century. There, in jazz age New York, she chronicles the birth of forensic chemistry at the hands of two scientific and public health pioneers—the city’s chief medical examiner Charles Norris, and his chemistry whiz side-kick Alexander Gettler.

And while chronicling their poison-sleuthing careers, Blum also teaches quite a bit of science. Her book is a case study in science popularization, and one we should all be paying close attention to.

Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer-prize winning science writer and has been a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 1997. Prior to that, she spent over a decade working as a science writer for the Sacramento Bee, where her series on ethical issues in primate research, “The Monkey Wars,” won the 1992 Pulitzer.

The Monkey Wars also became a book, and since then Blum has written numerous others: A Field Guide for Science Writers, Sex on the Brain, Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection, and Ghost Hunters: William James and the Scientific Search for Life After Death.

Blum has also written for numerous publications including The Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe, and The New York Times. She was president of the National Association of Science Writers from 2002-2004, and currently serves on advisory boards to the Council for Advancement of Science Writing and the World Federation of Science Journalists. 

Books Mentioned in This Episode:

Related Episodes

Sir Harold Kroto - Science Education and Freethinking
March 28, 2008

Comments from the CFI Forums

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Chris, We rebroadcast your interviews and noticed you have a “Call to Action”. These are improper on our Community Radio station. All not for profits are forbidden to use what they call these “Call to Actions”. We can tell people where they can obtain a book or cd but not request them to go there or to buy anything. We rebroadcast by permission on KKFI our local public radio station on Sunday mornings at 7AM.  90.1FM Kansas City Community Radio. We steam live at

I must delete these before broadcasting. Please just tell listeners where to go to get items.

Voice of Reason

Posted on Apr 25, 2010 at 10:52am by Voice of Reason Comment #1

A great book, as a science teacher I highly recommend it to any and all, regardless of scientific leanings.
Blum makes forensic chemistry come alive.  Highly recommended.

Posted on Apr 25, 2010 at 8:15pm by TeachScience Comment #2

This was a really good choice Chris. Thanks. Will definitely get the book.

Doug had a great question—it is sort of amazing that they might poison animals in a courtroom to get the “point” across…

I was reminded of the great articles that Isaac Asimov did over the years for F&SF; that were chemistry related—-
if you google “Asimov” “paradimethylaminobenzaldehyde” you will get a reference to one that still, amazingly,sticks in our minds...

I don’t know how many more of these stories Deborah Blum has to tell but I hope they don’t stop.

Deborah Blum said the editors didn’t want “chemistry” in the title—google “Murder and Chemistry” and you get endless links to this episode!

Posted on Apr 27, 2010 at 5:01pm by Jackson Comment #3

I really liked this interview. I’ve heard her interviewed on another podcast, and this one added more to what I’d heard before. I do hope she does a sequel, it certainly looks as if she has enough material. I will be getting the book.

Posted on Apr 27, 2010 at 5:39pm by asanta Comment #4

I also enjoyed the podcast, and will be looking forward to reading the book. Thanks for taking my question!

Posted on Apr 27, 2010 at 7:01pm by dougsmith Comment #5

I wasn’t aware of this. I’ll take this into consideration on future shows.

I’m glad everybody enjoyed this one….


Posted on May 01, 2010 at 8:36am by CMooney Comment #6

we used that title on purpose for just that reason ;>


Posted on May 01, 2010 at 8:51am by CMooney Comment #7

I liked this podcast and ordered the book the next day

Posted on May 02, 2010 at 8:21pm by FurryMoses Comment #8

I just finished the book. It was great. It makes me wonder that my grandparents lived long enough to have and raise children!
Now, I’m going to read it again…in case I missed something!

Posted on May 27, 2010 at 3:59pm by asanta Comment #9

I got a copy as well—enjoyed it.

Deborah Blum writes a book review for WSJ yesterday on the cocaine addiiction of Sigmund Freud and William Halsted
” Miracle Drug’s Dark SIde”

The book is also the cover review for today 7/24/2011 NYT Book Review:
[An Anatomy of an Addiction]

Posted on Jul 24, 2011 at 10:52am by Jackson Comment #10