The Arsenic Century

 Ian Burney finds arsenic everywhere in Victorian Britain   

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Reviewed by: Ian Burney
Author: James Whorton
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price (RRP): £16.99

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With The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work and Play, the eminent American historian James Whorton presents a well-paced and engaging overview of the remarkably ubiquitous place of arsenic in Victorian Britain. This was, he declares, arsenic’s “golden age”, and Britain was at its centre. He develops this claim with a popular readership in mind. His tone is wry and inviting, and he establishes a narrative voice that speaks directly to his readers, urging them to follow him along the many alarming twists and turns of his story.

The Arsenic Century is essentially divided into two sections: criminal poisoning and arsenic’s broader environmental impact. Whorton’s lively account of criminal poisoning makes it clear why this particular crime so fascinated and terrified Victorian society. Anonymous and coldly calculating, poisoners seemed to be drawing on modern social and scientific advances to inflict a new and insidious form of violence. To counter this threat, contemporaries looked to an emergent field of forensic expertise – toxicology. By the recourse to new chemical tests this new poison detective sought to make poisoned bodies tell their tales from beyond the grave.

For all the intrinsic fascination with arsenic as an agent of homicide, Whorton rightly points out that by far the greater number of arsenic fatalities were accidental, the result of the astonishingly wide uses of arsenic in the Victorian domestic, industrial, agricultural and pharmaceutical landscape. In the second section of the book, accordingly, Whorton leads his reader through a sorrowful catalogue 

of everyday assaults on the health of Britons resulting from the adulteration of food and drink, and the use of arsenic in seemingly harmless products  from cosmetics to candles to paint. It was this aspect of the Victorian experience of arsenic, Whorton concludes, that provides its most important historical lesson – as the first modern example of a state and society confronting the risks of exposure to a comprehensively poisoned environment. 

This is a model for intellectually sound popular history. For anyone who cares to read beneath the surface of the accessible storyline, there is evidence of a mature historian who is drawing on aspects of his own academic scholarship and repackaging existing relevant scholarship. As far as a contribution to scholarship in its own right, Whorton’s work has its moments, especially in the chapters devoted to environmental hazard. By comparison, the discussion of criminal poisoning and its toxicological detection is far more derivative in nature, and draws heavily on recently published work – not least my own Poison, Detection and the Victorian Imagination (2006). But as a comprehensive introduction to arsenic’s broad assault on Victorians at home, work and play, Arsenic Century has much to recommend. 

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Ian Burney is senior lecturer at the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine