This timeline gives key dates relating to early discoveries about poisons and toxins.

850 BCE - Homer

Homer writes of the use of arrows poisoned with venom (ancient Greek – toxikon) in the epic tales The Odyssey and The Iliad.

399 BCE - Socrates

The philosopher Socrates, charged with religious heresy and corrupting the morals of local youth, dies by hemlock poisoning (the active chemical is the alkaloid coniine).

69 BCE - Cleopatra

Egyptian queen Cleopatra experiments with strychnine and other poisons on prisoners and the poor. She commits suicide by the bite of the Egyptian asp.

1135 - A treatise on poisons

Jewish philosopher and physician Moses Maimonides writes Treatise on Poisons and Their Antidotes.

1347 - The Black Death

The bubonic and pneumonic plagues (also known as the Black Death) ravage Europe, killing about 25 million people between 1347–1351. This is the largest pandemic in recorded history. Worldwide, it kills about 75 million people.

1419 - A council of murderers

The Venetian Council of Ten, a political body, carries out murders with poison for a fee.

1493 - Toxicity depends on dose

Paracelsus (1493–1541) identifies the specific chemical components of plants and animals that are responsible for their toxic properties. He also shows that varying the amount of the poison affects the severity of the effects.

1452 - Bioaccumulation experiments

Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519) experiments with bioaccumulation of poisons in animals and calls the procedure “passages”.

1534 - Pope poisoned

Pope Clement VII (1478–1534) dies (possibly murdered) after eating Amanita phalloides, the death cap mushroom.

1600 - Shakespeare reference to poisoning

William Shakespeare (1564–1616) makes a reference to poisoning in his play Romeo and Juliet in Act 5: “Here’s to my love! O true apothecary! Thy drugs are quick. Thus with a kiss I die.”

1659 - Husbands poisoned

Hieronyma Spara, a Roman woman and fortune-teller, forms a secret organisation that sells an arsenic potion to women so they can murder their husbands.

1682 - Decree to stop poisonings

King Louis XIV passes a royal decree forbidding apothecaries from selling arsenic or poisonous substances.

1702 - An account of poisons

Richard Meade (1673–1754) writes A Mechanical Account of Poisons, about poisonous animals and plants.

1813 - Father of toxicology

Considered the father of modern toxicology, Orfila (1787–1853) establishes a systematic correlation between chemical properties and biological effects of poisons. He writes Traite des Poisons, which describes the symptoms of poisons.

1869 - Microchemistry of poisons

Theodore Wormley (1826–1897) writes the first American book dedicated to poisons, Microchemistry of Poisons.

1906 - US food and drugs law passed

The Pure Food and Drugs Act (1906) prevents the production or trafficking of mislabelled, adulterated or poisonous foods, drugs and pharmaceuticals, medicines and liquors.

1930 - US Food and Drug Administration

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) agency is established to regulate the content and safety of consumer drugs and food.

1950s - Minamata disaster

Minamata Bay in Japan is contaminated with mercury by a chemical plant. Thousands of adults and children are poisoned from eating fish contaminated with methyl mercury.

1952 - London Great Smog

The London Great Smog (also known as the Big Smoke) occurs for 5 days, causing or progressing the death of about 12,000 people. It is a stimulus to the modern environmental movement.

1961 - Arnold J Lehman

Arnold J Lehman collaborates with scientists to produce the first large compilation of toxicology, Procedures for the Appraisal of the Toxicity of Chemicals in Foods. He is co-founder of the Society of Toxicology and its journal Toxicology and Applied Pharmacology.

1980 - International Union of Toxicology

The International Union of Toxicology is founded in Brussels, Belgium.

1994 - HABs in NZ

Many harmful algal blooms (HABs) are reported in New Zealand along with the discovery that these are really toxic.

1995 - Shellfish bans in NZ

Shellfish banning begins due to appearance of poisonous shellfish.

2009 - Dogs’ deaths due to TTX

The death of dogs on Auckland beaches leads to the discovery of deadly tetrodotoxin in grey side-gilled sea slugs (eaten or mouthed by the dogs).

2012 - LC-MS methods detect shellfish toxicity

Legislation is passed that all countries in the European Union use liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry methods (rather than mouse bioassays) to detect known toxins and measure toxicity levels in shellfish. The Cawthron Institute in Nelson developed these methods.

    Published 4 September 2012, Updated 13 May 2014