Industrial Toxicology: Origins and TrendsEula Bingham, Ph.D., John Zapp, Ph.D., (deceased)
1 IntroductionIndustrial toxicology is a comparatively recent discipline, but its roots are shadowed in the mists of time. The beginnings of toxicology, the knowledge or science of poisons, are prehistoric. Earliesthuman beings found themselves in environments that were at the same time helpful and hostile totheir survival. They found their food among the plants, trees, animals, and fish in their immediatesurroundings, their clothing in the skins of animals, and their shelter mainly in caves. Their earliesttools and weapons were of wood and stone.It was in the very early period of prehistory that humans must have become aware of the phenomenon of toxicity. Some fruits, berries, and vegetation could be eaten with safety and to their benefit, whereas others caused illness or even death. The bite of the asp or adder could be fatal,whereas the bite of many other snakes was not. Humans learned from experience to classify thingsinto categories of safe and harmful. Personal survival depended on recognition and avoidance, so far as possible, of the dangerous categories.In a unique difference from other animals, humans learned to construct tools and weapons thatfacilitated their survival. Stone and wood gave way in time to bronze and then to iron as materialsfor constructing these tools and weapons. The invention of the bow and arrow was a giant stepforward in weaponry, for it gave humans a chance to kill animals or other people from a safedistance. And humans soon used their knowledge of the poisonous materials they found in their natural environment to enhance the lethality of their weapons.One of the earliest examples of the deliberate use of poisons in weaponry was smearing arrowheadsand spear points with poisons to improve their lethal effectiveness. In the
we find atJob 6:4, “The arrows of the Almighty find their mark in me, and their poison soaks into myspirit” (
The New English Bible
The Book of Job
is generally dated at about 400 B. C.L. G. Stevenson (1) cites the Presidential Address of F. H. Edgeworth before the Bristol Medico-Chirurgical Society in 1916, to the effect that Odysseus is credited in Homer's
withobtaining a man-killing poison from Anchialos, king of the Taphians, to smear on his bronze-tippedarrows. This particular passage does not occur in modern translations of the
and, accordingto Edgeworth, was probably expurgated from the text when Greece came under the domination of Athens, at which time the use of poisons on weapons was considered barbaric and not worthy of such a hero as Odysseus.Because the earliest literature reference to Homer is dated at 660 B. C., well before the Pan-Athenian period, an early origin of the use of poisoned arrows can be assumed. Indeed, the word “toxic”derives from the early Greek use of poisoned arrows.The Greek word for the bow was toxon and for a drug was pharmakon. Therefore, an arrow poisonwas called toxikon pharmakon, or drug pertaining to the bow. Many Latin words are derived fromthe Greek, but the Romans took only the first of the two Greek works as their equivalent of “poison,”that is, toxicum. Other Latin words for poison were venenum and virus. In the transition to English,toxicum became “toxin,” and the knowledge or science of toxins becomes “toxicology.”There were practicing toxicologists in Greece and Rome. Stevenson (1) refers to a book by Sir T. C.Albutt (2) according to which the professional toxicologists of Greece and Rome were purveyors of poisons and dealt in three kinds: those that acted quickly, those that caused a lingering illness, andthose that had to be given repeatedly to produce a cumulative effect. These poisons were of vegetable or animal origin, except for arsenic. Although the toxicity of lead was described byHippocrates, and of mercury by Pliny the Elder, these metals were apparently not deliberatelyemployed as poisons before the Renaissance.