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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 20th June 2013

I said, yesterday, that I’d been having a look at the archive of ‘Popular Science’ magazine that has just been released. The archive is fully searchable so I’ve been looking for a number of related terms to see how often PopSci has covered them.

I began with ‘ricin’ and found that the word appears only eight times with six of those occurrences coming since February 2003. That is a significant date because it was in January 2003 that the so-called ‘ricin plot’ in the UK was ‘discovered’. Those six references are typical of press coverage of ricin. It is said to be easy to produce, it is stated as fact that both Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda held stocks and the April 2003 issue says that ricin WAS manufactured in a north London flat. By June 2004, it is being brought into an article about drug mules with a claim that swallowing small pellets could be a way to ‘import enough anthrax, ricin or other deadly biochemical powder’.

The only two references, before 2003, are really only one. A November 1902 article about the development of immunity mentions ricin as a poison that it might be possible to build up immunity to by means of slowly increasing doses. The second occurrence, in March 1911, is just a reference back to the 1902 piece.

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Ricinus communis, castor oil plant

Rather than conclude that this demonstrates that ricin was not a significant interest until the British and American governments made it so to bolster the case for war in Iraq, I then searched for ‘biological warfare’ and ‘biological weapon’. The former produced 31 results and the latter 34. The most interesting of those was this 1947 article entitled ‘About Germ Warfare’ This gives a detailed report of a newly declassified document about work done during World War II on ‘germ’ warfare. That it makes no mention of ricin undermines all those people who casually claim that it was the subject of research during the war. On the Ricinus communis, castor oil plant, page, there is a discussion of the allegation that ricin was part of a plan to create poison darts during WWII.

So, it seems ‘Popular Science’ did not ignore the topic as a whole reinforcing my view that ricin was not the bête noir of the biological world since World War I that the media claims it to be.

My final search was for ‘anthrax’ a substance that can cause disease and has been subject to research for military use. ‘Popular Science’ has 113 references to anthrax. Sometimes, I think, you learn as much about what people thought about a substance by the way it is ignored as you do by the way it is reported.

The ‘Popular Science’ archive confirms that ricin was not a matter of concern during almost the whole of the 20th century.  

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