It’s all a matter of dosage and degree. Just ask Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot or Charles Darwin. One man’s poison is another man’s potential cancer cure.
“In The Power Of Poison, we illuminate how poison is used in the natural world – and the evolutionary history behind it – as well as the ways in which people have used it and tried to understand its power throughout the centuries,” says curator Mark Siddall from the American Museum of Natural History who brings this show to Brick Lane’s Old Truman Brewery.
“Sometimes the story is about dosage, sometimes the story is about target – what you are. We’ve been leveraging poisons for our own benefit for thousands of years. Foxglove is the source of digitalis, one of the first medicines we have for people with trouble with their hearts.
“The very plants we have leveraged for our own food – corn, wheat, potatoes, tomatoes – these are all in families of plants that are incredibly toxic. We benefited from the toxicity of the parts of the plants we don’t eat, which allows us to plant them in huge fields yet they won’t get attacked by fungus or insects or other herbivores. The very toxicity of those plants has allowed us to create agriculture.”
Kill or cure, friend or foe, toxins are a spectrum of chemicals that have evolved for a specific purpose – either attack or defence but, unlike spikes or armour, they also have a special place in our dark imagination.
The deadly substances lend themselves to appropriation by the iconography of storytelling – from the poison apple of Sleeping Beauty, though the contents of the cauldron in Macbeth to the slippery foe of a new breed of forensic and scientist detectives.
Hercule Poirot’s first case was strychnine poisoning. The Study In Scarlet was a poisonous debut for Sherlock Holmes. Harry Potter and his school chums were forever harnessing dark weeds as life savers.
“Poisons are these actors in nature that are unseen,” said Mark “They are wonderful things for story-telling because they’re magical.
“They’re magical because they powerful agents that are unseen.
“So these words like the three witches in Macbeth – ‘tooth of wolf and tongue of dog’ – are actually old words for plants that were very toxic.
“Throughout this exhibition you see this duality – the danger of poison the benefits of poison.”
The Power Of Poison, a new immersive and interactive exhibition is a family friendly showcase. There are live specimens on show, in glass cases (marvel at the golden frog, recoil from the tarantula) as well as a live 15-minute show taking you inside the lab.
Become a detective yourself with three iPad cases to solve and thumb through an enchanted book of herbs.
And, of course, to the delight of the extremophiles, there are the facts and stories. Of the newt that killed a camper, an ant that tops the pain league, the innocuous scorpion with a fearsome kick and the real cause of the Hatter’s madness.
■ Old Truman Brewery Loading Bay, Ely’s Yard, E1, £8-£15 + family tickets
What’s the most potent poison?
Curator Mark Sidall: “The most powerful poison that we see in animal kingdom is in the skin of the golden poison frog – there’s enough poison in a single frog to take down 10 grown human beings.
“From plants you have something like ricin which only takes about a gram to kill somebody. Those are incredibly powerful toxins but they still take a long time to have an effect.
“In terms of having a rapid effect, nothing surpasses cyanide, gas or salts, that’s very fast acting.”
Entomologist often get stung as they explore their science and have compiled rankings of the pain they have endured. The bullet ant a “pure, intense, brilliant pain” is top of nearly every list
4 Bullet ant: intense pain for three to five hours; less for up to 24.
4 Tarantula hawk: intense pain for two to five minutes.
3 Harvest ant: pain for one to four hours; less for up to 12.
2 Honeybee: pain for four to 10 minutes.
1 Paper wasp: pain is short.
These beasts produce poisons that are being examined for their health benefits
Sweet Wormwood: Malaria.
Mauve stinger jellyfish: Alzheimer’s disease.
Monocled Cobra: Arthritis.
Death Stalker Scorpion: Cancer.
Wedge Sea Hare (a sea mollusc): Cancer.
Foxglove: Regulating heartbeat.