A Visual History Of Poison

A new exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History explores poisons throughout history and around the world. Watch out for the live Gila monster.

“And now, my beauties,” crowed the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz, “something with poison in it, I think … with poison in it, but attractive to the eye, and soothing to the smell. Poppies … poppies. Poppies will put them to sleep.”


Just like Dorothy’s green-faced foe, the American Museum of Natural History has become besotted with the power of poison. Opening November 16, a comprehensive exhibition explores the roles of poison in nature, human health and history, literature, and myth.

Much of the 150-year-old museum is filled with Teddy Roosevelt-era taxidermy, but the design of Power of Poison is thoroughly modern, featuring touch-screen installations and an “enchanted book” with animated illustrations. Herewith, some highlights of this tour du toxins:

Toxic Critters

Colombia’s dense Choco lowland forest is recreated in an immersive walk-through installation, right down to live golden poison frogs, any one of which could poison 10 people. An Eastern diamondback rattlesnake skull shows off its syringe-like fangs–150 milligrams of this pit viper’s venom is enough to kill an adult.

Arachnophobes take heed: a live tarantula lurks behind glass, along with a Gila monster and poisonous caterpillars. For comfort, on display are also various amulets once thought to protect against poisons: fossilized shark teeth, believed to be dragon tongues that could “purify” food of deadly compounds; as well as fossilized sea creatures called crinoids, considered antidotes to common toxins.

Double, Double, Toil and Trouble


Ever wonder what was in that apple that paralyzed Snow White? This exhibition explains the science behind the deadly potions from your favorite myths and fairytales. A life-sized scene of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party reveals that hatters in the 1800s often really did go mad, due to their constant exposure to mercuric nitrate, which was used to turn fur into felt. Mercury poisoning led to trembling, memory loss, depression, irritability, and anxiety.

Smoke pours from a massive glowing cauldron, presided over by the pointy-hatted Weird Sisters from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. “Eye of newt and toe of frog,/Wool of bat and tongue of dog,” these witches famously sang of their potion. While some ingredients were fictional, many were real poisons, including hemlock, wolfsbane, and “slips of yew,” which refers to the deadly needles of the yew tree.

Medical Miracles
You know that Botox stuff that keeps millions of aging faces in place? It’s derived from the Botulinum toxin, one of the deadliest known substances, displayed here in a diorama of giant models of the protein. A few millionths of a gram can kill an adult. But when harnessed by scientists, it can help with muscle spasms and prevent wrinkles. It’s just one of many toxic substances that save lives when used the right way. The venom of the Chilean rose tarantula (displayed here live) contains a protein that can regulate heartbeat and has potential for mitigating muscular dystrophy. Hirudin, the first anticlotting drug, came from leeches. Antiplatelet drug Tirofabin derives from the blood-thinning venom of the African saw-scaled viper. And a deceptively beautiful aquarium houses colorful tropical fish that are all secretly toxic.

Victims of Venom
Villains both real and fictional have used poisons as discreet deadly weapons since time immemorial. In the Detecting Poison theater, presenters use props, animations, and audience volunteers to explore of the most infamous cases of poisonings throughout history, exploring advances in toxicology and forensics since the 19th century. There’s still debate among researchers over whether Napoleon Bonaparte died from poisoning by his British captors or from stomach cancer.

The Power of Poison is on view at the American Museum of Natural History until August 10th, 2014.


About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.