Bitter Nemesis: The Intimate History of Strychnine, 1st Edition (Paperback) book cover

Bitter Nemesis

The Intimate History of Strychnine, 1st Edition

By John Buckingham

CRC Press

320 pages | 21 Color Illus. | 1 B/W Illus.

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pub: 2007-07-16
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Encouraged by the medicinal success of quinine, early 19th century scientists hoped strychnine, another plant alkaloid with remarkable properties, might also become a new weapon against disease. Physicians tried for over a century, despite growing evidence to the contrary, to treat everything from paralysis to constipation with it. But strychnine proved only to be disappointingly deadly-relegating its fate almost entirely to animal control, the dangerous adulteration of foods, and criminal exploits.

The NOTORIOUS and TRUE story of how a POISONOUS alkaloid…

Bitter Nemesis: The Intimate History of Strychnine presents a scholarly and compelling history of this fascinating chemical substance from its discovery to present times. A renowned editor for the Dictionary of Natural Products, Dr. John Buckingham fuses his eclectic interests into an extraordinary mix of original research spanning the realms of history, medicine, literature, chemistry, and forensics.

…Changed the course of HISTORY!

Uncovering details and logistics from the earliest experiments performed in an era when proper scientific trials for testing new drugs were still in their infancy, the author explores strychnine's trial-and-error contributions to scientific, medical, and forensic developments. He also investigates historical milestones and the perception of strychnine in popular culture-including criminal notoriety, accidental misuse, and new claims of strychnine's benefits that extend through to the present day.

Juxtaposing the real trials, mistrials, and persistent curiosity associated with one of history's most notorious pharmaceutical failures, Bitter Nemesis offers rare insight into the anarchic, yet inspired landscape, practices, and legacy of 19th century science.


"Mixing science, history, and intriguing true accounts with his own touch of humor, Buckingham has created an enjoyable read for anyone with interest in scientific history."

Books to Note, Spring 2009

". . . Bitter Nemesis is the wonderful result of Buckingham’s passions and perspectives. Clearly, strychnine has come out on top again!"

—Jeffrey I. Seeman, University of Richmond in Angewandte Chemie International Edition, 2008

". . . well written and it would be highly entertaining light reading by chemists for their sheer pleasure."

—Joseph G. Cannon, University of Iowa in Journal of Medicinal Chemistry, 2008

"The introduction and 18 cleverly named chapters take the reader through the tangled and confused history of nux vomica … Efforts to use this preparation as a medication are described, along with the more sinister efforts to use this poison to commit murder… [it is] an interesting and educational glimpse into one of the many hallmark natural products that played pivotal roles in the development and evolution of organic chemistry."

Journal of Natural Products, 2010

"The book is well researched and thorough. Citations are endnotes to each chapter, and a bibliography and index are included at the end."

—Scott Zona, Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Economic Botany, 2008

Table of Contents


Some Disadvantages of a Weak Constitution


The Patient Generally Lies on his Back

M. Vauquelin's Lack of Fame

Perfidious Dutchmen Bark up the Wrong Tree

You Will Be Careful as to the Second Article

You Hold Him Down, I'll Pour it Down His Throat

Overture to the Sorcerer's Apprentice

The Fop, the Scotsman and the Opium-Eater

It Will Be the Test-tube and the Retort That Will Hang Him

Shaken in Every Possible Way

Mrs. Dove's Brush with the Media

That Clever Dr. Letheby, So Ugly and Terrific

Tigers, Lions, etc.; Six Hundred Kilograms

The Blue Anchor Murder and Other Outrages

I Didn't Know It Was Used for Poisoning

Is There a Faceless Fiend?

Another Round of Pay Phone Hysteria

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
LAW / Forensic Science
MEDICAL / Pharmacology
SCIENCE / Chemistry / General