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ByWilliam R.Cullen Is arsenic an aphrodisiac The sociochemistry of an element Royal Society of Chemistry 2008 412 pp

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Book Review
Published online in Wiley Interscience 9 July 2009
( DOI 10.1002/aoc.1524
Book Review
Is arsenic an aphrodisiac? The sociochemistry of an element
Royal Society of Chemistry, 2008, 412 pp.
price £59.95
ISBN 0854043632, 9780854043637
Is Arsenic an Aphrodisiac? I don’t think that Professor Cullen
answers this question directly, but he does report the paradox
that arsenic can both ‘increase sexual potency’ and ‘act as a
contraceptive’. In an age of Viagra and the birth-control pill, one
thing that is clear from the book is that the use of arsenic got there
first. Not only in this very human of areas, but in many facets of
the human psyche. From the prosaic (accidental poisoning of the
population via As in beer), taking in the salacious (serial killers) and
the improbable (the toxic gas hypothesis for sudden infant death),
arsenic can clearly be described as the ‘tabloid element’. From its
involvement in the treatment of disease, to its connection with
homicide, arsenic has clearly established itself as part of the social
fabric. This book delves into all of the facets of this element, with
the insight only possible from someone who has spent a lifetime
exploring the mystery of its chemistry.
The juxtaposition that is arsenic concerns its use to wilfully
inflict human suffering compared with its role in the alleviation of
human disease. Whilst most people will be aware of arsenic as a
poison, did you know that it was eaten by generations of different
social groups to improve their complexion and aid vigour? On the
other hand, most people know it has been used by generations of
criminals, murders and despots to inflict human suffering in war
and social unrest. It has provided the material behind artistic works
such as the play ‘arsenic and old lace’, but has also been implicated
in the demise of many notable historical figures; Napoleon, Mozart,
HRH George III, to name a few, were all touched by the pall of
In many ways this is as much a historical treatise of the subject as
it is scientific. Many of the references date back to the eighteenth
century, but it also covers very up-to-date work on the analytical
approaches now used to study the chemistry of arsenic and the
results and advances that have recently been made in this area,
many of which the author himself has been involved in. That
said, it can also be used to delve back into the early days of
arsenic analysis and how it was used to develop some of the
very first uses of chemistry in the forensic sciences, such as the
Marsh test. This part of the book once again demonstrates how
an element can be at the heart of a social issue, where chemistry
and justice collide. Whilst it covers the chemistry, it also deals with
the social aspects of this interesting element. The book is truly a
considerable achievement which I have no doubt will make an
impression beyond the chemical sciences. Its reach is far, both
historically and in the understanding of how a chemical element
can make an impact on society as a whole. My only regret is that
the author did not bring his complete intellectual understanding
to bear on some of the more contentious areas that arsenic has
been implicated in: who did kill Napoleon?!
C.F. Harrington
University of Surrey, UK
Appl. Organometal. Chem. 2009 , 23, 427
c 2009 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.
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chemistry, aphrodisiac, 2008, elements, sociochemistry, 412, bywilliam, society, cullen, royal, arsenic
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