The Dose Makes the Poison

GUESTS: Dr. Kimberly Garrett, Postdoctoral Research Fellow and Anna Klompen, PhD Candidate and Chancellor's Fellow, University of Kansas


What’s more terrifying than the true life tales of bloodcurdling and breathstopping toxins? This Hallows’ Eve we’re taking a page from the history books to make sense of puzzling poisons of our past and present.

Dr. Kaylee Byers speaks with Toxicologist Dr. Kimberly Garrett as they connect the dots across the globe of some of the most notorious and subtle poisonings in history. From investigating the final words of a disgraced emperor, tragic fates of conquesting explorers, wisdom from whimsical alchemists and desperate Victorian candy maker ploys, they demystify the distinction between necessary warning labels to lifelines concocted with a drop of poison.

In these ghoulish stories, a healthy dose of information could be a lifesaver.



Origins of 'the dose Makes the poison', a sometimes right alchemist


A deathly candy maker on hallows eve


Toxins in the water, understanding PFAS



Was Napolean Poisoned? | American Museum of Natural History A Visit to Longwood | Napoleon.org Pick Your Poison - 12 Toxic Tales | National Geographic Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning Safe Shellfish | Fisheries Research Board of Canada Unprecedented toxic algal blooms impact on Tasmanian seafood industry Paracelsus, the Alchemist Who Wed Medicine to Magic | Science History Institute “The Dose Makes the Poison” | Chemical Safety Facts Everyday Toxicology – The dose makes the poison & the cure | Michigan State University Box Jellyfish | National Geographic Phylogenetic and Selection Analysis of an Expanded Family of Putatively Pore-Forming Jellyfish Toxins (Cnidaria: Medusozoa) | Genome Biology and Evolution Following Lewis and Clark’s Trail of Mercurial Laxatives | Discover How Tainted Treats Led to a Halloween Tragedy in 1858 | Atlas Obscura Multi- and Transgenerational Effects of Developmental Exposure to Environmental Levels of PFAS and PFAS Mixture in Zebrafish (Danio rerio) | Toxics PFAS Resources | PFAS Exchange PFAS Free Producsts| PFAS Central The US National Institutes of Health's searchable chemical database | PubChem Improving governance of “forever chemicals” in the US and beyond | One Earth Arsenic Exposure and Toxicology: A Historical Perspective | Society of Toxicology The gastric disease of Napoleon Bonaparte: brief report for the bicentenary of Napoleon’s death on St. Helena in 1821 | Virchows Archiv CREDITS: Bonapartes Retreat - Kay Starr - Pee Wee King | Capitol Rule, Britannia - Royal Choral Society - The Philharmonia Orchestra | His Master’s Voice



Dr. Kaylee Byers: Over 200 years ago, a man arrived on a remote island called St. Helena. It’s a British territory in the South Atlantic and only 122 square kilometers across. Placing his feet on the island’s solid ground for the first time, he couldn’t have known he would remain there for the rest of his days. That man was Napoleon Bonaparte. Now, at this point in his illustrious career, Napoleon had just been exiled for the second time and this time for good.


A conqueror known for the reckoning of Europe was now a washed-up emperor. His new kingdom was an uninviting, cold, but freshly renovated farm called Longwood House. It was infested with rats, but at least the walls were painted with his favorite color, green. Napoleon probably thought this ordeal would only last for a few months before his triumphant return to the mainland, but as months turned to years, it became clear he would be staying indefinitely. Hudson Lowe, the Governor of St. Helena, kept him tightly supervised. Guards surrounded him. Dozens of servants were placed under strict orders, and he was completely cut off from the outside world. Napoleon’s health began to decline. Abdominal pain, weakness, vomiting, and no pleasant way of putting this, the shits.

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After five and a half years on the island, he passed away on May 5th, 1821. An autopsy later revealed that Napoleon’s death was brought about by gastric ulcers and stomach cancer. But Napoleon, three weeks before his passing, stated in his last will, “I die before my time, murdered by the English oligarchy and its assassin.” Entire libraries of early forensics, speculative journals, and folk theories have been filled pondering what or who killed Napoleon. Did he die from poor health, a nasty poison, or could it have been cold, premeditated murder?


You are listening to Nice Genes, a podcast dedicated to cultivating curious genomics clues brought to you by genome British Columbia. I’m your host, Dr. Kaylee Byers, your Agatha Christie of weird and wonderful science. We are dropping this episode just in time for Halloween season. Or if you’re like me, every season’s Halloween season. What goes better with a moonlit autumn night than ancient, bone-chilling tales and mysteries? The curious demise of Napoleon Bonaparte remains an enigma to this day, but we’re going to cross examinee what might have befallen the infamous emperor by peering into scribbled histories of toxins and poisons. The toxic compounds around us get a bad rap, but I think we can confront the often black and white assumptions we make about them by applying a genomic lens to toxicology.


So grab your homemade witch’s brew, a cozy blanket, and gather your red thread and suspect sticky notes as we hop from story to story demystifying the middle ground between the toxins that could kill us or be a lifesaver.



Kimberly Garrett: Hi.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: Hi, Kim. Do you go abbreviated, Kim? Is that a thing?



Kimberly Garrett: Yeah, that’s totally fine. Kim or Kimberly.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: As any self-respecting thriller novel will have you believe, there is always this scrupulous helpful friend and brilliant true crime detective. Not an expert, so I may ask you very silly questions.



Kimberly Garrett: That’s great.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: I’m not going to say who’s who, but regardless, I’m calling in some backup.



Kimberly Garrett: My name’s Kimberly Garrett. I’m a postdoctoral researcher at Northeastern University in their Social Science Environmental Health Research Institute.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: And a fountain of knowledge when it comes to toxicology. For our first toxin story, we begin a few decades before the exile of Napoleon, hugging the shores closer to my home in the dark blue and emerald waters of British Columbia.



Kimberly Garrett: In the 1790s, there was an expedition out of Great Britain led by George Vancouver to the Pacific Northwest.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: They were scouring the waterways for a northwest passage through the continent. Life on the waves is choppy. You have to harvest foods from land and sea to sustain yourself through the long voyage. But one day, something was off with Captain Vancouver’s crew. Vomiting. Lots of it.



Kimberly Garrett: An instant reaction of vomiting.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: Then limpness. Some crew entered a state of paralysis.



Kimberly Garrett: When your foot falls asleep, you can move it a little bit. You can’t do that when you have a flacid paralysis.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: Locked muscles, but relaxed and nonfunctioning.



Kimberly Garrett: And we know our heart is a muscle and our lungs depend on muscles to breathe. And so unfortunately, folks often die because their heart doesn’t pump.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: What was behind this sudden turn of health?



Kimberly Garrett: So the water at that time seems to have had a high level of algal microorganisms, so things that we think of as algae, and they produce a molecule that’s called saxitoxin. It permeates the water, and filter feeders like shellfish, like oysters, mussels, clams, they take up pollution from the surrounding water and they sequester some of that in their tissues. And they help keep the ecosystems clean. However, they do sequester some of these toxins. We also see this with heavy metals and certain things like that. Saxitoxin blocks activity in the sodium channels that allow our nerves to make our muscles move, to keep our heart pumping, to keep our lungs inflating and deflating.

So in Poison Cove, which I believe now has been renamed to Mussel Inlet, perhaps because of the local perception-



Dr. Kaylee Byers: They’ve had a rebrand.



Kimberly Garrett: Yeah, and they landed in Poison Cove and ate some of the muscles. So at that time, the saxitoxin was concentrated in the shellfish tissue, which the people then ate. And so that is how they became sick from saxitoxin. And it’s interesting because there are other kinds of food contaminants that we can cook away with things like heat and rinsing in water and things like that. But Saxitoxin is water insoluble and it’s pretty heat tolerant, so it’s not broken down by conventional cooking methods.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: In Vancouver’s notes, he said that the surrounding indigenous peoples had a taboo against eating shellfish. Now, too late, he had the answer as to why. This unfortunate run-in with some mischievous mollusks became one of the first recorded paralytic shellfish poisonings in modern record. This grim story demonstrates why we should be thoughtful of how we engage with our environment and how important it is to understand the interconnections of the natural world. Sometimes, survival depends on it.When we think about things like toxins or we think of them as poisons, we often frame them in the bad. The bad, maybe the good. Do you think that that approach is helpful to categorize them that way?



Kimberly Garrett: In some ways, yes. And I find myself veering on the negative side as a toxicologist, so you think toxin. And so I approach environmental contaminants in certain chemicals in a specific way with a jump in my mind straight to, okay, how is this harming someone? How can we reverse this? But if you take pharmacokinetics or drug development, pharmacy has a very different approach in which they see molecules and they see exposures and they say, “Okay, how can we use these to help people improve health?” But technically, it’s not a binary distinction, and that’s one of the fundamentals of toxicology is that the dose makes the poison.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: The dose makes the poison, a critical concept.



Kimberly Garrett: So things that can be safe in very low levels can be very toxic and high levels.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: As for Captain Vancouver, he may have noticed whoever had the biggest shellfish appetite took the biggest hit. But this understanding of a toxicological balance between the amount of shellfish consumed and, well, the likelihood of morbidity comes from another sort of character perfect for All Hallows’ Eve.



Kimberly Garrett: The phrase the dose makes the poison is attributed to a man whose full name is Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: Try saying that 10 times fast.



Kimberly Garrett: Paracelsus for short. But he was an alchemist in ye olden days.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: The 16th century, to be specific.



Kimberly Garrett: Paracelsus was a fairly controversial mystic.



Paracelsus: Dreams must be heated and accepted, for a great many of them come true.



Kimberly Garrett: He was definitely all in on turning metals into gold and giving terrible medical advice.



Paracelsus: The most secure method to ruin your health is a sick bed.



Kimberly Garrett: He had a lot of ideas that were not factual or evidence-based or what we would consider to be valid scientific theories today, but he did get a few things right.



Paracelsus: The dose makes the poison.



Kimberly Garrett: Any chemical can have a lethal dose. That’s true when we think of examples that we interact with every day. We can think about that with developing medicines, so acetaminophen like Tylenol can be very toxic in honestly fairly low doses. But there are certain amounts that we can take that have a beneficial outcome, but we want to limit our exposures to things that have low limits at which they become toxic. There’s not really any way to take in a safe amount of cyanide if you think about an old-timey poison, but you produce cyanide in your body and you have certain enzymes that break it down, and so there is a tolerable level, at least.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: I do wish he conjured up a recipe to change my costume jewelry into gold, but one of the few things he did get right helped pave the foundation of chemotherapy.



Kimberly Garrett: So chemotherapy is the very specific application of a poison. Certainly in Paracelsus’s day, the idea of chemotherapy was to apply a poison to kill the cells that are growing out of control. If we think of a classic chemotherapy drug like methotrexate, methotrexate is an immune suppression drug also used for chemotherapy, and it works by disrupting the metabolism of cells. And it does that by inhibiting DNA synthesis just fairly generally to cells by way of turning off folate production, which leads to some downstream effects that make it so that the cells can’t reproduce. But it’s a generalized chemo drug.


And so I think sometimes you can do more targeted therapies by making sure it goes to one specific area of the body or only interferes with certain cells, but that’s one of the reasons that chemotherapy is so hard on the folks who do it, is because they are ingesting a general poison that will damage not just the cancer cells, but a lot of the other cells, including the hair follicles, which is a big example. That’s why hair falls out because it’s damaged by the chemo drugs in that case.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: So, the dose makes the poison. So does the circumstance. So what or who would’ve poisoned good old Napoleon if poison was indeed the culprit? A few questionable characters making appearances in Napoleon’s final days may have had their motives. Was it the powerful British Governor Hudson Lowe acting as a plotting warden, assuring his slow but certain demise, guaranteeing a quiet exit quenching any stirring French retribution? Perhaps French royalists among his physicians tipped a malady of malpractice in his medicines as they tended to his many ailments. Or even the Count of Montholon, stationed on the same island, fuming over an alleged affair between Napoleon and his wife, all while having access to the former emperor’s wine cellar. We have a few more stories that might point the needle towards a possibility.


You’re listening to Nice Genes, a podcast all about the fascinating world of genomics and the evolving science behind it, brought to you by Genome British Columbia. I’m Dr. Kaylee Byers, your host, and we want to get more people to listen to the genomic stories that are shaping our world. So if you like Nice Genes, hit follow on Apple podcasts or wherever you get your shows. Pick your poison by dropping your favorite episode in your friend’s podcast feed.



Jenny Cunningham: Okay, test test.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: In the spirit of Halloween, one of our producers, Jenny Cunningham, asked folks the scary concoctions they were cautioned away from growing up.



Jenny Cunningham: Can you remember something as a kid that you were told was poisonous?



Streeter: Rhubarb leaves.



Jenny Cunningham: Rhubarb leaves?



Streeter: Yeah, we had oleander growing up. I don’t know if you know oleander.



Jenny Cunningham: No.



Streeter: It’s a super poisonous plum. We are from South Africa, so it grows in all the gardens and everything, but it’s really poisonous.



Streeter: Mushrooms. I don’t know.



Streeter: Cigarettes.



Streeter: The lake in Pointe-Claire. Lake Saint-Louis. Pooey-Louis. Yeah, it was full of toxins.



Jenny Cunningham: Yeah.



Streeter: Probably snakes, although because I’m from England, we don’t really get any snakes much.



Streeter: Maybe a snake. I remember I got bitten. I picked it up up and got bitten by it, so yeah.



Jenny Cunningham: You got bit by a snake?



Streeter: Yeah, that’s what my mom said. You learn the hard way sometimes.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: Peculiar pluckings and creepy crawly fangy things are an easy target. They’re what make the hairs on our neck prickle. Love that.



Dr. Anna Klompen: That looks great.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: But I want to bring out a guest you will have heard on episode one of this season, Dr. Anna Klompen, with the Stowers Institute for Medical Research.



Dr. Anna Klompen: Yes, I was hoping we would get to talk about this. Yes.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: She shared with us her love of jellyfish, but also has a great understanding of toxins and venoms as a whole, so I think she has an important lesson we can walk away with safely for our interactions with poisonous entities.



Dr. Anna Klompen: So I talked about this species of box jellyfish, the Australian box jellyfish or chironex fleckeri.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: Australian box jellyfish, one of the most venomous critters on this planet.



Dr. Anna Klompen: So I believe it’s two meters of tentacle contact from a mature adult jellyfish, that’s going to stop your heart in three to five minutes, so your heart gets locked in a contracted state. So one of my first venom-related projects was actually looking at this family of toxins, because it was thought for a long time that these were only found in the venoms of box jellyfish. But of course, as someone interested in evolution. I wanted to know where did these come from? Turns out, I believe, in looking through 143 different transcriptums-



Dr. Kaylee Byers: Are the full range of messenger RNA and mRNA, molecules expressed by an organism.



Dr. Anna Klompen: So in the 13 or so of these toxins, which are wonderfully called jellyfish toxins because we didn’t really have another name for it, so jellyfish toxins, I found 111 more. And while they are pretty consistent in box jellyfish and box jellyfish seemed to have an overabundance of these, we found them in many other species including moon jellyfish, including upside down jellyfish, including I believe in lion’s mane jellyfish, sea nettles. But we also found them in hydra.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: So through genomics, Anna revealed that the same toxins in the ultra deadly boxed jellyfish were also present in all of those other species.



Dr. Anna Klompen: There’s essentially a large group of genes we found that included all the box jellyfish toxins, included a bunch of other species, like I said, like lion’s manes and sea nettles, which can cause pain to humans. And then a group in there that included two hydractinia toxins that looked very, very similar to these really dangerous-for-people box jellyfish toxins.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: Sounds horrifying.



Dr. Anna Klompen: And I remember presenting this at my first little conference as a first year graduate student, I was the only one looking really at venom genes, and I was the only one that had started exploring these in hydractinia. And I shared this with the group, and I believe people started just laughing because hydractinia is too small to sting you. I could really put a whole handful in my hand and they’re not going to get through. But I’ve now presented this idea that maybe, if they were just a bit bigger, a little bit stronger, they have the potential to potentially do some serious harm.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: Bottom line, you can unclench your teeth while thinking about these critters. The takeaway, the delivery of any toxin matters. Contact is what you need to worry about. Which brings us to our next round of Halloween-inspired toxin tales.



Kimberly Garrett: Could I tell you about one of my favorite kind of… It’s very silly, it’s a colonial expansionism, but the reason that we know the Oregon Trail and Lewis and Clark’s expedition is because of mercury in their poop.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: What?



Kimberly Garrett: This is my favorite little weird European guys going on a little trip and then having a toxicological experience. So at the time of their expedition, mercury was all the rage. They had this idea that eating elemental mercury or ingesting elemental mercury could both work as an immodium, stop diarrhea, or be a laxative. And so to keep themselves regular, Lewis and Clark ate these pills. They were glue and they were made of elemental mercury and they ate them. And your body will absorb organic mercury, which is extremely bad and dangerous, but it generally will just not break down elemental mercury as opposed through your system. Additionally, I did say that inorganic mercury doesn’t do anything in your body. That’s not completely true. Do not eat mercury pellets. Please do not.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: Good disclaimer. So they were eating it for no reason in a way? They were just taking it in and it was just getting pooped out. Okay, yeah, I’m on board. Yep.



Kimberly Garrett: Yes. Well, they were convinced that it would cure whatever GI ailment you had at the time. It was seen as a cure all. And we saw that continue up until the early 1900s. Whenever researchers were trying to look for evidence of this trail, they found these trails of mercury just like little mercury pellets in the soil the whole way.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: What?



Kimberly Garrett: Because they ate them at a regular point and then they would leave their bodies at wherever they were camping.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: Wow.



Kimberly Garrett: That’s how we know where the Oregon Trail was.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: The human-made chemicals we produce and ingest are a more likely cause for concern. Access to heavy metal chemicals was widespread and common. There was little regulation at the time, but that was about to change with our story from jolly old England, about 50 years following the Lewis and Clark expedition.



Kimberly Garrett: In 1858, in October, there was a company that was producing candy. Halloween was coming up and you can think of old-timey Halloween decor, very spooky, and can picture a town preparing for trick or treat. And so there was a candy maker who was struggling financially to buy sugar. Sugar was very expensive at that point. This is in colonial times where we were taking sugar from far away. And so this candy maker decided to cut his sugar with plaster, which seems bad enough, but it gets worse.


So the type of plaster, while not something that I would recommend eating, apparently was not super toxic in the levels that you would ingest with a piece of candy, even on the most luxurious Halloween night. So in 1858, he sent an assistant to the what we would now call a hardware store to buy more plaster, but the assistant grabbed a different bag, and that bag was full of arsenic, which at the time you could get at the corner store. They used it for all different kinds of things, poison for things like rats and mice, which I’m sure you’re very familiar with.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: And that makes more sense. Yeah.



Kimberly Garrett: And so he brought this bag of white powder back to the candy maker, so the candy maker noticed that what he thought was plaster added a different texture to the candy than usual, but he didn’t think too much of it and ended up selling the candy to a distributor, who then sold it to the larger community. So people were eating arsenic-laced candy. And so from this incident, 200 people were sickened and unfortunately 20 died, and so this was really a tragic incident. And also, just hauntingly, occurred on Halloween as well.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: That unfortunate story is what led to better regulation of toxins, either synthetic or natural.



Kimberly Garrett: This incident led to England’s first law against adulterated foods as well as something called The Pharmacy Act, which made it so that only pharmacies could sell certain hazardous chemicals like arsenic.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: So how does that look in the 21st century? Kim spends her time looking at ways to make our lives less toxic. And her primary point of concern is what’s called Perfluoroalkyl and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances, or PFAS for short. I’m not trying to divert, but I want to take us to PFAS. What is PFAS?



Kimberly Garrett: So PFAS are a class of chemicals that are defined by at least one fully fluorinated carbon, which means a carbon where all of its empty binding sites are occupied by fluorine except for maybe one that connects it to another carbon. And so the carbon fluorine bond is the strongest chemical bond that we can observe. It takes an immense amount of energy to break, and so the chemicals that have those bonds are very persistent and they’re very strong, and they last a long time in the environment and in the industrial setting.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: It’s used for non-stick pans, firefighting foams, water-repellent clothing, some cosmetics, and more.



Kimberly Garrett: However, the persistence continues even after the product is used, and we have found that PFAS are not broken down by traditional waste management processes, and they have made their way all over the globe, into rainwater, into permafrost, into the blood of 98% of Americans. So they are called forever chemicals, and they’re associated with a lot of problems, especially with occupational exposure. So workers in those chemical plants have had adverse outcomes.


There was a case in which chemical workers, women chemical workers, saw increased birth defects in their kids as they had worked while they were pregnant. But even at lower levels through drinking water, we see things like differences in breast tissue development and kidney cancer. So I work in the PFAS project lab and we look at the ways in which social systems impact our relationship to chemical pollution and chemical exposure, and also how certain properties of PFAS lend themselves to being so persistent in our environments and why governments are still allowing their production. And so we see that there are high PFAS levels in fish that swim in areas that are downstream from chemical pollution. There are tons and tons of sampling data from different species of animals, including polar bears, and so it really accumulates in the environments of these animals.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: These PFAS chemicals aren’t just sticky to our environment, but they’re sticky to our genetics. A study with zebrafish found that these chemicals can pass through the placenta of their offspring, which messes with the next generation’s development impacting their morphology, gene expression, and can even lead to their mortality. We’re only starting to see what genetic effects it has on people. So I’m going to be real with you. This doesn’t sound awesome. What solutions are we uncovering for how to deal with this?



Kimberly Garrett: So in order to think about solutions, we have to look at the scope and scale of the problem. And for a long time, chemical companies have been allowed to use PFAS and dump them into the environment without having to report them at all. Some of them, they bypassed regulation under the Clean Water Act, but that is starting to change.

And so because these chemicals are so persistent and they travel fairly easily through environmental media like groundwater, ocean water, things like that, they’re everywhere, taking a traditional approach of just cleaning it up is not enough. It’s far too late.


We can certainly install filtration in communities and places that have especially high concentrations, hopefully on the dime of the polluters. But what we really need to do right now is turn off the tap of PFAS production use and prevent it from getting into the environment. We’ve already realized that there’s a problem and now we need to do something about it.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: As Kim mentioned, these chemicals were used to benefit consumers. It wasn’t devised diabolically by some wicked wizard as far as we know. It spawned from the societal need to improve our everyday items. But as Kim says…



Kimberly Garrett: Think about what risks we are willing to take. Chemicals can have all kinds of benefits to us, but do we need all of those benefits for the risks that they pose? So for something with PFAS, do I need waterproof mascara? No, probably not. And there are a lot of alternatives that are available.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: And she chooses to live her life with one final principle of toxicology.



Kimberly Garrett: My brain is turning towards something called the precautionary principle, and I’m a big proponent of the precautionary principle. The precautionary principle is essentially, it’s a better safe than sorry. As we’ve mentioned, there’s a lot of chemical diversity and lots of different protections that our body has to keep us safe, and that varies by exposure route. Your skin is very different than the inside of your lungs. But just because there is no evidence of something being dangerous, then it’s better to be safe than sorry, so we should always be working to find more sustainable and safer solutions to the problems that those harmful chemicals fix in the short term.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: You’ve heard the many ways the toxins that we produce or find in nature can have some pretty profound consequences and sometimes even benefits. So maybe we can take one last stab at the question, who or what killed Napoleon Bonaparte? One popular hypothesis comes from Canadian Ben Wheeler, founder of the International Napoleonic Society. He claimed that hair samples from Napoleon tested positive for high levels of arsenic poisoning. The bright green walls that Napoleon preferred were only vivid from the addition of arsenic in its mixture. With a little dampness and some mold to break down the paint, it could be ingested just from the dusty air of his rustic residence.


The night before his death, Napoleon’s physician notes giving him a dose of calomel, a popular Victorian-era drug, but completely riddled with mercury chloride. So Wheeler points an accusatory finger towards the bane of Napoleon’s exile. The Governor, Hudson Lowe, who appointed the staff and oversaw the renovations of Longwood House, was the cold architect of a cruel and long ploy of bodily sabotage, all in the name of King and country.


But in this case, an assumption was made. The connection to being poisoned by his enemies is dubious at best. The hair offered as the centerpiece of Wheeler’s evidence could easily have come from someone who is not Napoleon. As Dr. Garrett discussed, this is an era where all sorts of remedies used for the supposed betterment of people actually did the contrary. Arsenic was a common substance. It’s been said that you would be hard-pressed to meet somebody back then who was not radiant with the stuff. The real killer was stomach cancer, and more than likely void of criminal intent. Did the calomel mercury given to him the night before or the surrounding arsenic-laden paint exacerbate it? Perhaps.


Some tall tales have a drop of truth. But in the words of Dr. Kimberly Garrett, it’s better to be safe than sorry. So let’s not presume to have the full picture of what or who put the final finish on the French Emperor’s story, and let’s not assume we know all the poisons out there. Remember, it’s all about dose and context. Like Napoleon’s interior decorator found out, one man’s paint is another man’s poison.


Our guests for today were toxicologists and environmental health scientists, Dr. Kimberly Garrett from Northeastern University and Dr. Anna Klompen from the Stowers Institute for Medical Research.


You’ve been listening to Nice Genes, a podcast brought to you by Genome British Columbia. If you liked this episode, go check out some of our previous ones wherever you listen from, share us with your friends, and leave us a review. You can also DM the show on Twitter by going to @ genomebc, and if you’re listening with kiddos or a teacher looking to spice up your lessons, we have Learn-a-long activity sheets added to the show description of each episode. Feeling a little drowsy? Maybe not from paralytic shellfish, just that time of day when you got a hit some Zs. This season we’re looking at assumptions, and I’m curious for when it comes to sleep, what you think is the biggest assumption we’ve made.



Dr. Hiroki Ueda: One of the longest-lasting assumption is sleep is good for resting. Sleep is good for forgetting. Partly true, but what we found is complete opposite. During awake, your brain connection will be decreased, and then sleep is very good for connecting your brain. And then during the sleep, your brain connection will be enhanced. Neurons, they’re very active.



Dr. Kaylee Byers: Join us next time where we look at one of the most important parts of your non-waking life, sleep. Until then, cyanide-anara.

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