Books to Note

John Buckingham. Bitter Nemesis: The Intimate History of Strychnine. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2008. xix + 298 pp. $41.95.

By Nicole Rietmann

In this compelling book John Buckingham investigates how the dangerous poison strychnine and its variants earned a reputation as miracle drugs, despite their inability to actually cure any of the ailments for which they were prescribed. Administering the drugs for every disorder from deafness to lead poisoning to cholera, druggists, physicians, and chemists realized only too late the fatal effects of strychnine, brucine, and nux vomica. A good portion of Bitter Nemesis focuses on several prominent cases involving strychnine deaths, both accidental and intentional. These cases show the alarming availability of the poison well into the 20th century, as well as strychnine’s rise as a popular murder weapon. Strychnine poisoning, aside from having a profound influence on the field of forensic science, also made its mark on literature, and Bitter Nemesis devotes several pages to an analysis of Agatha Christie’s detailed knowledge of poisons. Mixing science, history, and intriguing true accounts with his own touch of humor, Buckingham has created an enjoyable read for anyone with an interest in scientific history.

 

 

Allison Kavey. Books of Secrets: Natural Philosophy in England, 1550–1600. Champaign, IL:
University of Illinois Press. 2007, 197 pp. $40.

By Zoe Marquardt

The volumes referenced in this book’s title do not immediately appear to belong to an existing genre of writing: they include not only treatises devoted to the mysteries of the natural world, but also guides to ordering one’s domestic space and a manual for the proper care of horses. The author argues that although these instructive texts do not explicitly examine the enigmas of nature, they are no less embedded with secrets than are the works that address natural phenomena exclusively. Books of Secrets considers the popularity of natural philosophy books at the time they were published and demonstrates the formal similarities between “academic” and “practical” texts. Kavey also shows how secrets are inflected by the gender- and class-specific contexts in which they appear. The author’s conclusion—that books of secrets uniquely link scientific knowledge and social instruction—is relevant to studies of 16th-century English history and print culture, sociology of science, and epistemology of reading.