The Alexander Awards: Best Tox Reading of 2010

December 31, 2010, 4:38 pm

Towards the end of every year, columnist David Brooks of The New York Times gives out his Sidney Awards for the best magazine pieces of the year. (To read about this year’s winners, click here and here.) In that same spirit, TPR is announcing the recipients of the first annual Alexander Awards.  These statuettes bear the likeness of  Alexander Gettler (pictured), New York City’s chief toxicologist in the early twentieth century and one of the two heroes of Deborah Blum’s must-read book The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. These awards go to the best tox-related articles on the web for the preceding year.  Note:  to be eligible, the winning entesri must be fully and freely accessible; unfortunately this eliminated from consideration important journal articles such as Toby Litovitz’s review of pediatric button battery ingestions and Finkelstein et al’s superb comprehensive look at the toxicity of colchicine.

The world of toxicology was well-covered in newspapers and magazines throughout 2010.  The Los Angeles Times published a fascinating, extensively research three-part series describing how small, entrepreneurial, decentralized organizations of drug dealers have radically altered the economics and market penetration of black tar heroin.  The Washington Post ran a description of a museum in Mexico City devoted to the history of drugs and drug traffickers, along with a slide show illustrating exhibits from the museum. The Sydney Morning Herald published a brief history of the poisoner’s art. And John Mullan in the Guardian (U.K.) revealed his list of ten of the of the best poisonings in literature.

MMWR published details of several investigations into toxic exposures, including  anticholinergic poisoning in 6 patients who had ingested a jimson weed stew, and 18 cases of ecstasy toxicity in people attending a New Year’s Eve rave party in Los Angeles.

Additional Alexanders go to: Jack Shafer for his Slate piece explaining how Life Magazine and its publisher — Henry Luce — contributed to popularizing psychedelics in the 1960s; H. Niyazi whose fantastically researched post on the blog “three pipe problem” convincingly solved the toxicological mystery in Botticelli’s great painting “Venus and Mars”; and John Tierney of the New York Times for his breezy piece describing the good movie that could be made around the story of the (possible) poisoning of the 16th century Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe.

The year 2010 was also great for toxicology humor.  The Onion gets an Alexander for its laugh-out-loud story about the honorary degree awarded by Harvard to the drug Adderall, as does Chris Nickson of Life in the Fast Lane for his post about “The Poison Preview”.  The Daily Mail (U.K.) also wins an award in the humor category for its brilliantly inventive  piece on the U.S. Navy’s plan to bombard parts of Guam with acetaminophen-stuffed frozen mice. (Oh wait —  that last story was real.)

And, to come full circle, Deborah Blum’s historical essay “The Chemists’ War” in Slate — about the program pursued by the U.S. government to poison supplies of bootleg alcohol with methanol and other toxins during prohibition — gets the Golden Alexander for the most interesting toxicology piece of the year.

So lift a glass of bubbly to celebrate all of this year’s winners.  Here’s hoping that 2011 brings a similar bumper crop of articles concerning all things tox.


  1. H Niyazi Says:

    What a wonderful honour! I’m delighted my Botticelli post attracted the attention of a site dedicated to Science. Cheers TPR!

    Kind Regards
    H Niyazi

  2. precordialthump Says:

    Many thanks for the award Leon – pretty much the biggest honour I’ve received in my medical career so far – along with the F.UCEM of course.

    However, I have been getting a number of phone calls from Egerton. He seems to be quite irate that you classified my report in the humour section and feels you’re not taking ‘The Poison Preview’ project ( seriously enough.

    I suggest you don’t open any mail sent to you from Enlightenment Boulevard (near Pyongyang) anytime soon. I just hope he doesn’t rescind your recently conferred F.UCEM Grandfather Award…


  3. Deborah Blum Says:

    I’m so honored to receive the Golden Alexander award for The Chemist’s War. TPR is one of my favorite websites and Alexander Gettler is one of my heroes (as is probably obvious in The Poisoner’s Handbook!) Can’t wait to read all the other pieces cited here – and congratulations to all the other winners.

  4. precordialthump Says:

    Well deserved Deborah!

  5. Leon Says:

    precordialthump: I was wondering why over the last day TPR has been getting an unusual number of hits from the PRNK.

    Deborah: Well-deserved, indeed. And thanks for the kind words!