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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 27th October 2011

I may struggle to find the time to write this. That’s not just because I’m giving a talk this evening and have to have a technical rehearsal as well as trying to work out what to include and what to leave out in order to keep within the allotted time and allow for questions.

The more I learn about these plants, and I do learn something new every day, the more difficult it becomes to decide what should be included in the talk especially when, as it is this evening, it is under the catch all heading ‘Lethal Lovelies’. The true reason for my shortness of time actually adds to that problem.

The Royal Society has released its archive online for free. For me, that is really exciting news as well as being good for the bank account.

The Royal Society was formed in 1660 and first published its ‘Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society’ in March 1665. In 1886, this was split into two; the ‘A’ journal dealing with mathematics, physics and engineering and the ‘B’ dealing with biological science. The Royal Society has been working with JSTOR (which stands for JSTOR as far as I can tell) to digitize all its archives and place them online. But, until now they have only been available to subscribers or on a pay per view basis.

Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort

Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort

From today, however, anything over 70 years old is available free of charge. I’ll illustrate the importance of this, for me, by considering Oenanthe crocata, hemlock water dropwort. On the plant page, the first of the ‘Incidents’ associated with this plant is the poisoning of French prisoners in Pembroke during the Napoleonic Wars. For the website page, the brief details available publicly were sufficient but when I wanted to include the incident in ‘Is That Cat Dead?’ (I think I’ve mentioned what a good read that is) I decided I needed to confirm what was being said and also to have more detail of the case. That meant spending £27 to see the original letter from the Philosophical Transactions and, because that referred to other items, also paying £27 a time for two further letters.

The reports of the change to a free archive have talked about ‘scientific papers’ but, in fact any separate item attracted a charge. The items I purchased access to were letters only a few hundred words long not full papers.

I won’t say I was happy to spend that amount of money but I felt it was necessary to give the best possible account in my book. What I didn’t feel able to do, however, was a trawl of the archives to see if any other interesting poisoning incidents were reported. But, now I can.

And I’ve started already, which is why I’m pressed for time. So far, I’ve found another Oenanthe crocata poisoning, a case involving Aconitum napellus, references to deadly nightshade, several mentions of opium, cannabis and tobacco as well as a number of documents dealing with poisoning in general.

As I get the time, I’ll look at all of them in more detail and see what to add to the A to Z section and what merits a full blog entry. This really is very good news in itself but it will become even better news if it enhances the debate about paywalls surrounding scientific information in general.