M J B Orfila The Father of Forensic Toxicology

Lithograph of M. J. B. Orfila (National Library of Medicine)

Mathieu Joseph Bonaventure (Mateu Josep Bonaventura) Orfila (1 787-1853) was born in Catalonia, Spain, but as a medical student moved to France, where he worked and became professor of forensic chemistry and dean of the medical faculty at the University of Paris. He began publishing articles describing his work early in his career; his first paper on poisons appeared in 1814, when he was 26 years old.

Orfila spent a good deal of time studying poisons, particularly arsenic. As a toxicologist, he concentrated on methods of analyzing poisons in blood and other body fluids and tissues. He became involved in the Lafarge case in

1840. Initial results of the analysis of Charles Lafarge's remains were negative for arsenic, but Orfila was eventually able to detect arsenic in the exhumed remains. He was dogged in his work, detail oriented, and, in many ways, ahead of his time. For example, he realized that because Charles had been buried for some time, arsenic found naturally in the soil might contaminate the remains and cause misleading results. Orfila took care to test the soil and showed that the levels found in the dead man exceeded the amount that could have come from the soil. The dead man's widow, Marie Lafarge, was eventually convicted of poisoning her husband after a long and highly publicized trial. Orfila's testimony in the case was one of the earliest examples of sound scientific testimony by a recognized scientific expert in a court of law.

Lithograph of M. J. B. Orfila (National Library of Medicine)

12 drugs, poisons, and chemistry morphine, cocaine, atropine, and thebaine. In large doses these compounds act as poisons that in the mid-1800s were almost impossible to identify. Alkaloids are difficult to extract from tissue, making the task of detection even more of a challenge for early toxicologists.

A breakthrough in combating alkaloid poisoning came in 1850 as part of an investigation of a suspicious death in which the suspected killers had doused the body with vinegar. The man responsible for this advance was Belgian Jean Servais Stas (1813-91). Stas quickly realized that the presence of vinegar on the body was an important clue. When an acid is mixed with a base, the result is neutralization of both. Perhaps, Stas reasoned, the killers tried to neutralize an alkaloid poison using the vinegar. After lengthy experiments on the body tissues preserved from the victim, Stas developed a procedure to extract alkaloid poisons. Eventually, he was able to identify nicotine as the poison used in the case. He reported the results to authorities, who investigated further. Investigators quickly determined that the suspects had extracted large amounts of tobacco in the days leading to the murder. Bodies of animals used in experiments by the murderers were also found. Two people, a man and a woman, were arrested and convicted of murder.

Marsh, Orfila, and Stas were pioneers of forensic science, particularly forensic chemistry. Their advances did not stop poisoning, but the number of cases dropped as scientific tests improved. In the 20th century forensic chemists improved their ability to isolate and identify poisons as well as accurately determine the quantities of poisons and their metabolic by-products in blood, urine, and other body fluids and tissues. Toxicologists are still confronted with suicidal and accidental chronic poisoning from exposure to arsenic at low levels in drinking water, food, or soil. One or two doses are not harmful, but over time these doses accumulate and can cause disease and death. Poisoning as a method of murder, however, is now exceedingly rare.

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