When Did Mathieu Orfila Discover Toxicology

Mathieu Joseph Bonaventure Orfila (1787-1853), often called the ‘father of toxicology’, was the first important representative of forensic medicine in the 19th century. Orfila worked make chemical analysis an integral part of forensics and conduct investigations into asphyxiation, decomposition of corpses and exhumation.

His first major work, Traité des poisons tirés des règnes minéral, végétal et animal; ou, Toxicologie générale, was published in 1814.

When did Mathieu Orfila make his discovery?

Although poisons have been studied and described since the 9th century, the true origins of modern toxicology date back to the early 1800s when a man named Mathieu Orfila wrote a scientific work titled Treaty of Gifts: Tires of Mineral Reigns, plant and animal; or general toxicology.

When did Mathieu Orfila contribute to forensic science?

With his own improvements to James Marsh’s arsenic detection methods, Orfila helped uncover the truth about the murders of Nicolas Mercier in 1838 and Charles LaFarge in 1840.

The local magistrate asked the victim’s doctors, Monsieur’s De Lespinasse, Bardon and Massenat, to perform the then-new ‘Marsh Test for arsenic. The test, designed by English chemist William Marsh, was as ground-breaking as Orfila’s ‘Treatise’ and, provided it was performed 100% according to the instructions, was as near to infallible as could be. It’s still in use today, such is its reliability. The doctors knew almost nothing about the test but, rather than admit their ignorance, performed the test and submitted their results to the magistrate. According to them there was no arsenic found in Monsieur LaFarge’s stomach contents.The defence leapt on this as proof of innocence and tried to discredit the testimony of Anna Brun who had seen Marie taking white powder from a small box and putting it in her husband’s food. Having scored this extremely useful point they should have had the sense to leave well alone. They didn’t, and it would come back to haunt them and especially their client.

Orfila arrived, took the food items, plates and glasses and performed the Marsh Test exactly as described in the manual. The result was entirely accurate and utterly destroyed Marie’s claims of innocence. Orfila reported, having tested everything he’d been asked to, that the food items, crockery and malachite box contained between them enough arsenic to kill dozens of people. Combined with Marie being a major beneficiary of her husband’s death, Anna Brun’s eyewitness testimony of her putting white powder in her husband’s food, his several unexplained illnesses, the fake rat poison paste that contained no arsenic and the house seemingly untouched by any actual rats, the verdict was inevitable. Marie was guilty.

The prosecutor was a learned man who’d studied Orfila’s ‘Treatise’ extensively and knew he had only one card left to play. Arsenic can leave stomach contents over time, but lasts far longer in food items and crockery. These hadn’t yet been tested. Nor had the small malachite box that Anna Brun had testified to seeing Marie LaFarge use for storing white powder she regularly added to her late husband’s food, although the stomach contents had..It would prove to be his ace in the hole. When the defence had originally requested Orfila himself conduct the tests, the prosecutor had opposed them and the judges had backed him. Now he requested the exact opposite. Seeing as the box, food items and crockery hadn’t been tested, he argued, they now should be. And, seeing as the defence had originally requested Orfila himself do the testing, surely they’d have no objection to the prosecutor doing the same. The defence, having painted themselves into a corner and put their client at serious risk of the guillotine, had no choice but to agree.

It was her lead counsel, Monsieur Paillet, who served the cause of justice by completely burying his own client. He insisted, in the interest of his client and to absolutely prove her innocence, that Orfila himself perform the test. As Europe’s pre-eminent toxicologist he could prove absolutely whether or not arsenic was involved. He did, and Maire LaFarge paid the price. Originally the judge decided that Orfila’s presence wasn’t required and that an affidavit from Orfila would suffice, which Orfila duly provided. The affidavit stated that the tests were so badly performed that the results were meaningless as evidence in a criminal trial which, without Monsieur Paillet’s overconfidence, should have resulted in an easy acquittal. The test itself, in Orfila’s absence, would be performed by two local chemists, Monsieur Dubois and his son, aided by Monsieur Dupuyfren, a respected chemist from Limoges. They performed the Marsh Test on the stomach contents (but not the food items retained as evidence by the prosecutor) and all agreed they had found no arsenic. Great for the defence and devastating for the prosecution. Or so it seemed at the time.

The ‘Age of Poisons’ was a poisoning epidemic within France. Toxicology and forensics were in their earliest infancy, disease was common and many poisons shared common symptoms with many poisons. Arsenic was the poisoner’s favourite, resembling the symptoms of many common diseases like gastro-enteritis, general food poisoning, dysentery and a host of others. It became so popular with murderers that it became known as the ‘Prince of Poisons’ and, in France it was delightully nicknamed ‘Poudre d’inheritance.’ ‘Inheritance powder.’


When did Orfila published on detection of poisons?

Orfila’s first treatise, Traité des poisons, greatly enhanced and built upon the work of other toxicologists (and quickly surpassed them). Published in 1813, the treatise earned him the title Father of Forensics.

When did Mathieu Joseph Bonaventure Orfila?

As I mentioned in the Marie Lafarge case, toxicology existed before this case and was established with the chemist and father of toxicology, Mathieu Orfila. Orfila published the first complete work of poisons (Traite Des Poison) in 1813.

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