A fascinating look at the history of toxicology

An interesting but brief overview of medical science and toxicology from 400AD to 1600AD.

Book cover of 'Toxicology in the middle ages and renaissance'

The first two volumes in the History of Toxicology and Environmental Health Series, edited by Philip Wexler, describe toxicology in antiquity. This new book continues the story by covering the approximate period between 400AD and 1600AD. It consists of 16 chapters written by contributors from various institutions in Europe, the Middle East and North America.

The first part of the book describes the work of some prominent medieval Islamic toxicologists and later physicians and philosophers, such as Paracelsus, Maimonides and Pietro d’Abano, which enables the reader to begin linking up the gradual consolidation of knowledge about poisons. Other sections cover the activities of some infamous figures such as the Borgia and Medici families, an exploration of some alchemical perspectives of poisons, animal venoms, medical literature of the period, the odd substances used as antidotes and the toxic hazards of mining.

The strength of the book lies in the clear, lively style of writing but its weakness is in attempting to cover such a wide range of subjects over 12 centuries in a relatively slim book. Discounting the copious references and the index leaves about 140 pages many of which have illustrations of the people mentioned in the text and images of some original manuscripts. Although well written there is not enough space to go into great detail and the space allocated seems uneven in places. In the chapter on medieval Islamic toxicologists, for example, some of the individuals mentioned only get a few lines of text giving a name and dates but little else. Conversely, the use of various animal parts as antidotes take up several chapters and a fairly robust defence of the Borgias has a whole chapter of its own.

The book is worth reading and will interest anyone curious about the history of medical science as well as medical students and toxicologists but it should be considered a brief albeit fascinating overview rather than a detailed insight into the development of toxicology in this period.

Roger Poole


Toxicology in the middle ages and renaissance, edited by Philip Wexler. Pp xviii+174. Price £24.99 London: Academic Press; 2017. ISBN 978 0 12 809554 6

Last updated
The Pharmaceutical Journal, PJ, September 2017, Vol 299, 7905;299(7905):DOI:10.1211/PJ.2017.20202644