Parkword Preview: A Conversation with Deborah Blum

As some readers know, I am currently halfway through my one year term as editor of my neighborhood’s quarterly newsletter The Parkword. For our upcoming winter issue, I had the pleasure of writing two feature articles, including one about author, journalist, Pulitzer Prize winner, and professor Deborah Blum; Deborah lives in my neighborhood, making her the perfect first subject for my Better Know a Neighbor feature. We talked extensively about her book The Poisoner’s Handbook, which I loved and highly recommend. Enjoy!

Better Know a Neighbor: A Conversation with Deborah Blum

Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer Prize winner, an advocate for better science journalism, a past president of the National Association of Science Writers, a professor at the UW’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and the author of numerous books. She is also a resident of Parkwood Hills, along with her husband Peter Haugen and college-age sons Marcus and Lucas, and the first subject of our Better Know a Neighbor feature.

Deborah’s most recent book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, was published in 2010. The book describes the origins of forensic toxicology starting in Jazz-Age New York, though the eyes of Charles Norris, the chief medical examiner in New York from 1918 to 1935, and Alexander Gettler, a pioneering toxicologist who worked in the chief medical examiner’s office from 1918 to 1959. Along the way, readers learn about the history of Prohibition, some grisly tales of murder, and a good dose of chemistry as well. Each chapter is organized around a particular poison and the science that enabled its detection in the body. In television terms, the book is Boardwalk Empire meets CSI. It’s meticulously researched and more interesting than the best fiction.

Deborah and I met at TNT’s Coffee and CafĂ© by Alicia Ashman Library to talk about the book, her writing, and science journalism in general. I started by asking her about the process of putting together the book. How does one go back in time and construct a compelling narrative of events from a hundred years ago?

“I knew I wanted to write a story of poisons in a murder-mystery kind of way, but I could never figure out how to do it. Poisoners are really interesting killers. You can’t have a non-premeditated poison murder. Poisoners are planners, and plotters, and calculators. So it was really getting caught up in the story. Seeing chemistry as a story, seeing poisoners as a story.”

After she sold the book proposal, she then had to figure out what shape the book was going to take. “I spent a good three or four months hysterically trying to figure out what the story was. I didn’t want to write an encyclopedia of poisons. I wanted a narrative story.” She went through several figures–a scientist at University of Pennsylvania, an early toxicologist in California–but she hadn’t yet found someone who was central to the discovery of detecting poisons in the body. “I was thinking, ‘Where are the early figures in the United States?’ Every other book was talking about Europe. And I found this reference in the newsletters of the Society of Forensic Toxicology to Alexander Gettler, and I thought, ‘Okay, I’ll go read his biography,’ but of course there wasn’t one. And from then, I was just very single-minded. That was the story, and I knew it was there.”

She used her past experience as a newspaper reporter and started digging, determined to learn everything she could about this man who appeared to be a central figure in forensic toxicology in the US. “I did a lot of mosaic kind of research. I read countless contemporary publications. I went through the archives of the toxicology groups. I read through archives of the New York Times. I went to the New York Public Library to look through archives of things like the Brooklyn Eagle, which is not online. I went to the New York Historical Society. I hunted down the remnants of history that you can find at Bellevue Hospital.”

Her research even took her ahead of clerks who manage the archives, including a search for letters from the Norris era of the New York medical examiner’s office. They had just been archived when Deborah showed up to look at them. The clerk wasn’t even aware that they had the letters until Deborah had him call the organization’s archivist to confirm that they indeed had the letters. “They were so covered in some kind of moldy dust that, by the end of the week, both my grad student researcher and I were sick.”

Archives weren’t all though. She “also tracked down Alexander Gettler’s descendants. Charles Norris didn’t leave direct descendants but Gettler did. And I discovered that he had a grandson named Paul Gettler who was still living in New York City. So I called every Paul Gettler I could find until I got the right one. His sister had a whole archive of Gettler stuff in the closet, so she was hugely helpful. So it was this long process. Neither Gettler nor Norris had left a wonderful diary, so I put them together in my head, assembled them from all these different sources and thought about the story.

“There was one point when I was writing it that I thought, ‘This is such a phenomenal story. What these guys did was just amazing. Why didn’t someone in New York write this?’. And then I realized it was because the story just didn’t exist. This story exists because I did all this work, and I recovered it in this non-traditional way, pulled together from all these different sources. It’s one of the things I love most about this book, rescuing these guys. They deserve to be known for what they did. But it was a boatload of work and a lot of panic” before the story fully came together.

The story of Gettler’s and Norris’ achievements is an exciting one, but so too are some of the surprises from history. I asked Deborah what surprised her most as she was doing research for the book. The biggest was the federal government’s efforts to make alcohol-based products include a higher percentage of methyl alcohol (a highly toxic kind of alcohol, different from the ethyl alcohol that the body can break down more easily) during Prohibition. This was done to make alcoholic beverages distilled from methyl alcohol deadly and essentially to poison citizens who went looking for bootleg booze. “I was floored by that. A lot of us know the history of Prohibition, but I had never heard this. I saw some references to it in Norris’ letters, and then when I was hunting down everything Gettler and Norris ever wrote, I found a phenomenal essay by Norris, ‘Our Experiment in Extermination.'” Both Norris and Gettler opposed Prohibition and found efforts to make alcohol poisonous reprehensible, partly because they saw its effects directly.

“I was shocked and I was horrified. For a government to make a decision that it is justified in killing its own citizens in a widespread way like that and for so long, it’s wicked. You have to believe that the end justifies the means and that you are purifying society so it is okay to kill the refuse and the unworthy. That was just a phenomenal discovery. That was the most shocking thing for me.”

Another surprising thing is the science and experimentation that was necessary to learn how to detect poisons. “Some of the work that Gettler did, thinking about things like how do you tell someone was drunk at the time of death, and realizing that that was a huge unknown. How would you figure that you? That was really fascinating thing to me. Here you had the first person in the world who figured it out, during Prohibition, and it took him 6,000 brains to do it.”

Much of this kind of research involved animals, a topic that relates closely to work Deborah has done in the past, including her 1992 reporting on primate research that won her a Pulitzer Prize. I asked her about how her past work on animal research ethics helped her understand this early forensic toxicology research.

“Writing about primate research makes me extra sensitive to how I write about animal research. At the period they were doing animal research, there were no ethical issues in the minds of scientists. Everyone did whatever they wanted. The guidelines came much later, in part thanks to the work of Harry Harlow,” a researcher at the University of Wisconsin and a subject of Deborah’s 2002 book Love at Goon Park.

“But when I go back and look at that early animal research, I always say don’t apply a 21st century lens to early 20th century research. But I find myself still writing about it carefully. When you write about animal research, you have to acknowledge that these are living, thinking, feeling beings. I know researchers don’t love me putting that in the forefront. But all mammalian species feel, have relationships, are cognitively aware.

“In Gettler’s case, he was working with mostly dogs. Those are really smart social animals, so you have to write about them with respect. But I also had to frame it in a way that didn’t make the scientist a bad guy because people love dogs. I love dogs. So I’m careful, and I recognize that it’s a different time. I want people to understand, and I describe the experiments so that people can understand. But reading the scientific papers is painful. The tricky thing about writing about animal research is that you can derail your point.” In one extreme case, Deborah’s writing about animal research, done with cooperation of the scientists doing the research, prompted death threats and the scientist had to move his family out of their house for a time.

This example illustrates the power of narrative that Deborah has been such an advocate for. Even complex information can be understood when it is put into a story. I asked Deborah about her passion and advocacy for narrative in science writing. “When I worked at the [Sacramento] Bee, I used to say the science writer has to be the best at the paper because you are trying to get a general audience interested in something that is outside of the usual box. You know that most of your readers at some point said, ‘I’m so glad to be done with science.’ Probably somewhere in the middle of a high school chemistry class. So it’s really interested to me to try to get these people back into science. How do I tell the story that I’m going to trick you into reading something you never thought you would read? Narrative allows you to do that.

“Narrative also reminds you of one really important thing about science. Science is a story. It is a story of human endeavor. Fundamentally, science is a the story of people trying to understand the world around us. They use different tools than we might use, but that’s what they are trying to do. If you fail to tell that story, the story of people and the way science works as a process, then you don’t do the story justice. The other thing that narrative gives you is the ability to tell the story of science in the human way that it needs to be told. And not just about the lives of scientists, but about our lives, the people whose lives are affected.”

The stories of ordinary people affected by science fill The Poisoner’s Handbook and were one of the most rewarding thing about writing the book. For example, there’s the story of young women working at a factory painting radium on watch faces to make them readable in the dark. The body treats radium like calcium, and most of these young women died in horribly gruesome ways as their bones fell apart. There’s also a story of a woman, Lillian Gatz, who died after eating a pie with arsenic mixed into its crust. “Her nephew wrote me after the book came out. He sent me a photograph of her as a little girl. He said, ‘I learned more about my aunt from your book than my family ever told me.’ And so these human stories cast a long shadow.”

Deborah’s innovations in science writing don’t end with being a strong advocate for more narrative. She also pursues different publication methods for her work, including maintaining her own blog (which you can find at deborahblum.com), an active presence on social networking website Twitter (follow her @deborahblum), and writing for other blogs, including popular blog Women in Crime Ink.

For her latest project, about serial killer Albert Fish, she chose a unique publication method. “Publishing is going through this remarkable digital transformation. One of thing things for me is that I have this oddball position to be a working journalist who teaches. And some of the decisions I make have to do with the fact that I want to experiment with different forms of communication because I teach it. I was thinking about electronic publication.” Deborah was approached by digital publisher The Atavist to put something out. She produced an 11,000 word work, much less than a book but longer than a traditional newspaper or magazine article. It was then sold as a short e-publication that can be read on devices like the Kindle and the iPad.

“It’s a true story of a really horrible, kidnapping, cannibalistic, completely crazy serial killer who really did believe he was getting his directions from angels who floated at the edges of his consciousness. So that question–what do you do when you have someone who is both dangerous and crazy?–was really interesting to me. I thought about pitching him as a full-scale book, but I couldn’t imagine spending 3 years hanging out with Albert Fish. I’d be a lunatic. I really wrestled with it. How do I want to tell it?”

The digital publishing method allowed for several versions. There’s a standard version that works on devices like the Kindle. Then there is also an enhanced version. “If you do the enhanced version there’s a film, 1920s movies and music. There’s interactive mapping. You can look at letters he wrote that will pop out of the text. There’s me, reading the text with a little musical intro for every chapter. There’s photographs. It gives you a more holistic experience and that, as a writer, is really interesting. All in all, if you do the enhanced version, you really step into the 1920s and ’30s in a way that is just gorgeous. It actually is enhanced,” rather than distracting from the central narrative.

What’s next for Deborah? Her next book is about poisonous food, from the ordinary (for example, did you know the largest source of arsenic in most people’s diets is from rice?) to the extraordinary (like extremely poisonous foods–far worse than anything we can make in the lab–or the fact that compounds in rocket fuel are found in mushrooms). The Poisoner’s Handbook is also in production to be a documentary for American Experience.

With all her expertise about poisons, it has also made her an expert on a dangerous subject that people seem unnaturally curious about. “People would come up to me at parties and ask me what I was working on, and I’d say it’s a book about poisons. And then they would ask what the best poison is. And I thought, ‘This is a really weird experience. They are asking me how to kill people.’ I mentioned that to my editor and she said, ‘Never tell them. Never!'”

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