Science Inventory

A Historical Perspective on the Dichotomy of Arsenic as a Poison and Medicinal Agent


Hughes, M. A Historical Perspective on the Dichotomy of Arsenic as a Poison and Medicinal Agent. Society of Toxicology, San Antonio, Texas, March 11 - 15, 2018.


This is an abstract for a Historical Highlight presentation at the 2018 Annual Meeting of the Society of Toxicology. In this presentation I will describe how arsenic has been as a poison, both intentional and unintentional, as well a medicinal agent.


Arsenic is one of the most interesting and enigmatic elements of the periodic table. Its use as an intentional poison has been known for centuries and occasionally occurs today. Arsenic has been called the “King of Poisons”, because it had been used to poison royalty and thus alter who would ascend to the throne. The development of the Marsh test, by James Marsh in 1830s, a simple analytical method to detect arsenic, may be a reason why intentional arsenic poisonings decreased. A lesser known use of arsenic as an intentional poison is as a chemical warfare agent. Arsenicals were used in World War I by both the Germans and Allies and included arsenic trichloride, dichloromethylarsine, and others. Near the end of World War I, lewisite (β-chlorovinyldichloroarsine), a very potent vesicant, was first synthesized in the United States. Unintentional poisonings from arsenic have occurred in several countries over the years. In the 1900s, an outbreak of arsenic poisoning occurred in England from the consumption of beer brewed with arsenic contaminated ingredients. In the 1950s, Japanese infants were poisoned by arsenic contaminated powdered milk. A much larger unintentional arsenic poisoning has resulted from the consumption of groundwater contaminated naturally with arsenic in eastern India and Bangladesh. Tens of millions of people in this region of the world are potentially at risk for the development of chronic diseases and cancer from drinking this arsenic contaminated groundwater, which still continues today. Arsenic has been and is still being used as a medicinal agent. One noted arsenical medicinal agents is Fowler’s solution, developed by Thomas Fowler in the 1770s. Fowler’s solution was used to treat fever, asthma, syphilis and many other ailments up until the mid-1900s. In the early 1900s, Paul Ehrlich, a German chemist, synthesized over 900 chemotherapeutic agents containing arsenic, such as arsphenamine, to treat diseases such as syphilis. The use of arsenicals in medicine decreased in later years because of the toxic side effects of arsenic and more effective agents became available. However, arsenic trioxide has been found to be an effective anti-leukemia agent in cases of refractive acute promyelocytic leukemia. Arsenic has a rich history in that it has affected many people by the development of many chronic diseases and death from both intentional and unintentional poisonings. But it also has had some benefit as a medicinal agent, particularly as an anti-leukemia agent. (This abstract does not represent US EPA policy.)

Record Details:

Product Published Date:03/15/2018
Record Last Revised:06/15/2018
OMB Category:Other
Record ID: 341168