The American Museum of Natural History has become besotted with the Power of Poison. Opening November 16th, a comprehensive new exhibition explores the roles of poison in nature, human health and history, literature, and myth. Here, the golden tree frog. Its skin is, ounce for ounce, one of the most toxic substances on Earth.

Steedman’s Soothing Powders advertisement: Although mercury is highly toxic, various forms of it have been used medicinally for thousands of years, even into the mid-20th century. In the 1860s, calomel pills containing mercury were popular for conditions ranging from constipation to depression. It was even used in teething powder until 1948, when it was banned for making children sick.

A recreation of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party reveals that hatters in the 1800s often really did go mad, due to their constant exposure to mercuric nitrate, which was used to turn fur into felt.

Mercury poisoning leads to trembling, memory loss, depression, irritability, and anxiety.

The saying “mad as a hatter” dates back to the 19th century, when mercuric nitrate was used in the millinery industry.

Eastern diamondback rattlesnake skull (Crotalus adamanteus).
Of the thousands of known snake species, only a few hundred wield venoms powerful enough to harm humans. A snake’s venom might include neurotoxins that immobilize or weaken prey, making them easier to subdue, or even enzymes that begin digesting prey before it is ingested.

Zebra longwing catterpillar (Heliconius charitonius)
This caterpillar has evolved the ability to feed on toxic passionflower plants. The spines of the zebra longwing caterpillar and the orange and black coloring of the flame caterpillar serve to advertise their bitter taste and warn predators to keep away.

Lucrezia Borgia was a member of a prominent and dangerously ambitious family in Renaissance Italy. She was also an alleged poisoner who, according to contemporary accounts, wore a hollow ring with a stash of arsenic inside. Today, historians believe she may have been innocent, wrongfully blamed for the crimes of her treacherous family.

“Curare” is the general term for a variety of toxic substances, made from the roots, bark, stems, and leaves of any of several tropical trees, vines, and plants; it has traditionally has been used to coat blowgun darts. To make the poison, the plant material is boiled for hours in large pots. The liquid is then strained. When it thickens, the resulting paste is stored in various types of containers, including clay pots like this one.

This beaver hat would have been made using toxic mercuric chloride.

Stone cups made from jade, striped agate, or colorful rock crystal were prized in Europe because they were thought to purify wine and remove any poisonous elements.

These darts, collected in the 1930s, would have been coated by hunters with a powerful plant-based toxin known as curare. Fine plant fiber wound around the darts’ ends ensures a snug fit in the blowgun tube and gives the hunter’s breath a surface to push against. The round containers, another product of the palm tree, hold extra fiber.

Centuries ago, Europeans thought fossilized shark teeth were the tongues of dragons. These “tongue stones” were worn as charms and dipped into food to purify it of poison.

Emeralds and garnets and were said to protect against snake venom and other poisons as far back as the ancient Egyptians.

This life-size diorama re-creates a famous scene in William Shakespeare’s Macbeth that features a trio of witches dropping gruesome ingredients into a boiling cauldron. The witches' potion draws on the supposedly magical powers of a few highly poisonous plants: toxic wolfsbane, hemlock, and yew, for example.

Predatory cone snails may move slowly, but their venom acts fast, paralyzing prey by interrupting nerve transmission to the muscles. Used medicinally, these toxins block pain signals from reaching the brain, yielding pain relievers more powerful than morphine. Cone snail toxins are also being studied to develop potential medicines for epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s disease.

According to legend, Cleopatra, the last pharaoh of ancient Egypt, ended her own life by enticing an asp to bite her. The snake we now call an asp produces very painful--but rarely deadly--venom. The Egyptian cobra is a more likely candidate, as its venom is extremely deadly. But it would have caused a painful demise, with violent convulsions. Cleopatra’s was reportedly a quiet, peaceful death.

The venom of the Chilean rose tarantula contains a protein that seems to regulate heartbeat; some studies indicate it also might reduce pain and possibly be useful against muscular dystrophy.

This aquarium may look pretty, but almost everything in it is toxic. Many sea creatures use chemical defenses to deter predators. Others, such as anemones, use poison to capture their prey. Thousands of marine invertebrate toxins could provide a rich source of potential medicines that treat problems from pain to Parkinson’s disease.

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A Visual History Of Poison

A new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History explores poisons throughout history and around the world. Watch out for the live Gila monster.

"And now, my beauties," crowed the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, "something with poison in it, I think ... with poison in it, but attractive to the eye, and soothing to the smell. Poppies ... poppies. Poppies will put them to sleep."

Just like Dorothy’s green-faced foe, the American Museum of Natural History has become besotted with the power of poison. Opening November 16, a comprehensive exhibition explores the roles of poison in nature, human health and history, literature, and myth.

Much of the 150-year-old museum is filled with Teddy Roosevelt-era taxidermy, but the design of Power of Poison is thoroughly modern, featuring touch-screen installations and an "enchanted book" with animated illustrations. Herewith, some highlights of this tour du toxins:

Toxic Critters

Colombia’s dense Choco lowland forest is recreated in an immersive walk-through installation, right down to live golden poison frogs, any one of which could poison 10 people. An Eastern diamondback rattlesnake skull shows off its syringe-like fangs—150 milligrams of this pit viper’s venom is enough to kill an adult.

Arachnophobes take heed: a live tarantula lurks behind glass, along with a Gila monster and poisonous caterpillars. For comfort, on display are also various amulets once thought to protect against poisons: fossilized shark teeth, believed to be dragon tongues that could "purify" food of deadly compounds; as well as fossilized sea creatures called crinoids, considered antidotes to common toxins.

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble

Ever wonder what was in that apple that paralyzed Snow White? This exhibition explains the science behind the deadly potions from your favorite myths and fairytales. A life-sized scene of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party reveals that hatters in the 1800s often really did go mad, due to their constant exposure to mercuric nitrate, which was used to turn fur into felt. Mercury poisoning led to trembling, memory loss, depression, irritability, and anxiety.

Smoke pours from a massive glowing cauldron, presided over by the pointy-hatted Weird Sisters from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. "Eye of newt and toe of frog,/Wool of bat and tongue of dog," these witches famously sang of their potion. While some ingredients were fictional, many were real poisons, including hemlock, wolfsbane, and "slips of yew," which refers to the deadly needles of the yew tree.

Medical Miracles
You know that Botox stuff that keeps millions of aging faces in place? It’s derived from the Botulinum toxin, one of the deadliest known substances, displayed here in a diorama of giant models of the protein. A few millionths of a gram can kill an adult. But when harnessed by scientists, it can help with muscle spasms and prevent wrinkles. It’s just one of many toxic substances that save lives when used the right way. The venom of the Chilean rose tarantula (displayed here live) contains a protein that can regulate heartbeat and has potential for mitigating muscular dystrophy. Hirudin, the first anticlotting drug, came from leeches. Antiplatelet drug Tirofabin derives from the blood-thinning venom of the African saw-scaled viper. And a deceptively beautiful aquarium houses colorful tropical fish that are all secretly toxic.

Victims of Venom
Villains both real and fictional have used poisons as discreet deadly weapons since time immemorial. In the Detecting Poison theater, presenters use props, animations, and audience volunteers to explore of the most infamous cases of poisonings throughout history, exploring advances in toxicology and forensics since the 19th century. There’s still debate among researchers over whether Napoleon Bonaparte died from poisoning by his British captors or from stomach cancer.

The Power of Poison is on view at the American Museum of Natural History until August 10th, 2014.

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