« PreviousContinue »
like sensible legislation, are unworthy of consideration; and we trust that in the grand scheme for consolidation, which we are led to expect will be completely unfolded in the next session of parliament, current legislation will not be forgotten.
One word more : Mr. Bellenden Ker, in his evidence before the committee of the House, expressed his horror at the very notion of a revising board. We have as much horror of boards as Mr. Ker; but how is it that the commissioners, in so very simple à question as this, could not decide whether the revision of bills ought to be intrusted to a single officer or to a board ? Why did these twenty learned men leave this knotty point still to be decided by Her Most Gracious Majesty, whom they were called upon to advise ? To the indecision of the commissioners on this, as on all other points, may principally be attributed the neglect with which their second report (the best of the three) has been treated, the indifference and incredulity with which proposed future efforts are now met, and the discredit to which this important branch of law reform has unhappily attained.
Art. X.-On Poisons, in relation to Medical Jurisprudence and
Medicine. By ALFRED SWAINE TAYLOR, M.D., &c. Second Edition. London: Churchill. 1859.
SOME of our readers might suppose that the word Poison was
so clear in its meaning that no difficulty would arise from its use in common or scientific language. And yet so far is this from being the case, that we have never seen an adequate definition of the word. M. Bernard (in his “ Leçons sur les Effets des Substances Toxiques,”) says, a correct definition is impossible; but adds, that here, as in other instances where definition is most difficult, it is least requisite. The like reflection may have consoled Dr. Johnson when he asked the pert midshipman what “poplolly” was, and obtained for reply, that
VOL, VII. NO. XIII.
it was “what the poplolly man put into the poplolly locker.” The medical practitioner at least will be aware that the same incapacity for definition belongs to the word "medicine.” “No one,” says Dr. Taylor, “can draw a definite boundary between a poison and a medicine”—a fact to which they who have been
. much physicked can give ready credence. The greater number of poisons are useful medicines when properly employed, and “nearly every substance in the catalogue of medicine may be converted into an instrument of death, if improperly administered." The old proverb, indeed, that “what is one man's meat is another's poison," also confirms this view.
The popular notion of a poison is obviously too imperfect for scientific consideration; for that is commonly supposed to be a poison which, when administered in small quantity, tends to destroy life or health. However, a small dose of certain substances-for instance, tartarized antimony—is a medicine, while it is a poison when a large dose is administered. Let us take another instance that of common salt. In the small doses in which we all indulge, this substance is a food, and one which it would be cruel persecution to deprive us of; but if, like a selfdoctoring young lady whose case is recorded, we were to swallow half-a-pound thereof, in a few hours later the coroner would sit on our bodies, and our heirs, executors, adıninistrators, or creditors, as the case may be, would enter upon our estates.
The nature of various substances, in a toxicological point of view, and the loose use of the term poison generally, is of no small practical importance. It is by no means uncommon for the counsel for the defence, in a charge of poisoning, in the cross-examination of a medical witness, to press upon him the question whether the material alleged to have been fatally used was strictly poison. Thus, in a case mentioned by Dr. Taylor, a woman named Whisker administered to a female, for a specific purpose, some white hellebore. Now this vegetable one medical witness hesitated to rank as a poison, because, though it was noxious to the human system, he knew of no case where it had
produced death! So an objection was taken to the indictment that hellebore was not poison. The judge thereupon is reported to have laid down the law to the jury, that what was in ordinary language understood to be a poison, was to be legally held to be such. The jury very properly found that white hellebore was a poison, and the prisoner was convicted. Thus, although it is a question for the jury to consider as to whether a particular drug or other substance is a poison, yet their verdict must be derived from the medical evidence. The mere question of a poison or medicine, . may be illustrated by the case of a wretched woman called Rodanbosh, who, in 1856, was indicted for administering oil of turpentine to her infant. The defence was, that she thought it would cure its cough !-probably just as the guillotine is said to be a perfect remedy for squinting. Here the jury acquitted the prisoner. Again, in another case, emanating from that great poisoning county Essex, a woman escaped conviction because white precipitate was not proved on the trial to be a “poison or destructive thing," although it undoubtedly is both.
Although, as we have seen, it will be occasionally difficult for a medical man to say, abstractedly, that a certain drug or substance is poison, yet he will surely find it impossible to affirm that such has or has not "poisoned” a particular individual, or been destructive of his life. Thus, certain metals are not " poison "—iron or silver, for example; yet their introduction into the human body may be very "destructive to life.” One recent instance is on record (Med. Soc., Lond., 1856), where a greedy boy, having been told to "take a spoon,” did so—by swallowing a silver one seven inches long. Although, on all chirurgical grounds, this enfant terrible ought to have died, yet his life was preserved, and he was enabled, after a lapse of two years, honestly to restore to his anxious parents' plate-basket the article he had thus curiously appropriated and secreted. This instance ought not to be taken as a precedent for swallowing metal substances indiscriminately; for pieces of metal of much less size and importance are often destructive of life, e. g., copper coin, needles, and pins. The latter are used especially for the
purpose of murdering young children ; and although these articles occasionally fail to effect this object, when the intent to destroy is proved, no doubt can exist but that their administration is felonious. If frequent recovery or instances of non-susceptibility could alter the character of the act of administration of any substance, no doubt the case recorded in the Medical Gazette (vol. 26), would have this effect in regard to pins and needles ; for here no less than 254 were removed from a woman's body, most of which had been there some thirteen years. She was fortunate, however, in the sticking of her pins, and in the mode in which the needles threaded their ways; for these useful little implements will sometimes penetrate the liver, carotid artery, or other equally important portion of the human frame. One old woman, for example (also an inhabitant of Essex), administered some pins to her grandchild eleven weeks old, one of which took up its abode altogether in its liver. This would have been fatal to the child, but its grandmother had also taken the precaution of causing it also to swallow some sponge and a piece of wood, to meet the contingency of the pins failing. This excellent woman was tried and acquitted by a Chelmsford jury!
And here we may remark on the vigilance which is requisite for a practitioner, when consulted on mysterious cases which often arise. The most improbable causes may be detected at times by his acuteness, though sometimes he may be utterly baffled. The death of an imbecile girl (reported in the Dublin Medical Press) is an instance of a patient puzzling the profession. She became emaciated, vomited, and could take no sustenance,
our was formed in the pit of her stomach. After her death, but not till then, it was discovered that she had acquired a habit of swallowing her own hair, which had collected in her etomach and killed her. In another case (Philadelphia Medical Examiner, 1847), dangerous symptoms in a child were long unaccounted for, until it was discovered that the patient had taken a fancy to eat percussion caps. We are told, though we can hardly credit it, that "the caps were discharged and the child
recovered !”? We should have thought that the violent explosions in the child's intestines must have killed it.
The statistics of death by poison in England are derived from the Registrar-general's report, and are very interesting, though evidently imperfect. The average mortality (calculated from
( 1848 to 1853) amounts to 536 per annum. The death of the males is in great excess over that of the females every year, except in 1852, when the proportions are reversed in a manner most extraordinary, and totally unexplained.?
Assuming, with Dr. Taylor, that deaths ensue in not more than one case out of three of poisoning, we have about 1600 known cases of poisoning per annum. The statistics are, as we have said, undoubtedly imperfect; but they contain the best approximation we can arrive at as to the facts which render them useful.
There is another table, derived from the returns of the inquisitions held by the coroners of England and Wales, of deaths occurring by poison during the years 1837 and 18 3 ; but this
appear that there were about half the number of deaths by poison in 1837 that there were during a like period ten years later—a very improbable condition of circumstances. The coroDers' returns, however, are useful as showing the comparative frequency in the use of various poisons. Thus :
Deaths during two years were occasioned by various preparations of opium
196 By arsenic
185 By sulphuric acid
32 By prussic acid Hence, to opium we must refer the greater number of fatal poisonings ; but of these the larger proportion arise from suicide or accident. Arsenic is the next common means of death in
Our contributor's mind must be perversely ruuning on his gun-nipples, or he would perceive that there would be no known means of firing off percussion caps so located. He has curiously misunderstood the medical term employed !-(Editor.)
* We assume there is no misprint in the original returns, which are accurately repeated in Dr. Taylor's book.