US Geological Survey


Date of this Version



Published in Environmental Contaminants in Biota: Interpreting Tissue Concentrations, 2nd edition, ed. W. Nelson Beyer & James P. Meador (Boca Raton: CRC, 2011).


U.S. Government Work


The detection and interpretation of contaminants in tissues of wildlife belongs to the field of toxicology, a scientific discipline with a long, intriguing, and illustrious history (reviewed by Hayes 1991, Gallo 2001, Gilbert and Hayes 2006, Wax 2006). We review its history briefly, to provide a context for understanding the use of tissue residues in toxicology, and to explain how their use has developed over time. Because so much work has been conducted on mercury, and dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), separate case histories are included that describe the evolution of the use of tissue concentrations to assess exposure and effects of these two groups of contaminants in wildlife.

The roots of toxicology date back to early man, who used plant and animal extracts as poisons for hunting and warfare. The Ebers papyrus (Egypt -1550 BC) contains formulations for hemlock, aconite (arrow poison), opium, and various metals used as poisons. Hippocrates (-400 BC) is sometimes credited with proposing the treatment of poisoning by decreasing absorption and using antidotes (Lane and Borzelleca 2007). Chanakya (350-283 BC), Indian advisor of the Maurya Emperor Chandragupta (340-293 BC), urged the use of food tasters as a precaution against poisoning, and the Roman emperor Claudius may have even been poisoned by his taster Halotus in 54 AD. Moses ben Maimon (1135-1204), author of a treatise on poisoning, noted that dairy products could delay absorption of some poisons. Paracelsus (1493-1541) shaped the field of toxicology with his corollaries that experimentation is essential to examining the response, that therapeutic properties should be distinguished from toxic properties, that chemicals have specific modes of action, and that the dose makes the poison. The art of concocting and using poisons reached its "zenith" during the Italian Renaissance, eventually culminating in its commercialization by Catherine Deshayes (a.k.a., La Voisine, 1640-1680) in France.

One of the first to suggest a chemical method for the detection of a poison in modern times was Herman Boerhaave (1668-1738), a physician and botanist, who, according to Jurgen Thorwald (The Century of the Detective), placed the suspected poison on red-hot coals, and tested for odors. The Spanish physician Orfila (1787-1853) served in the French court, and was the first toxicologist to systematically use autopsy and chemical analysis to prove poisoning. He has been credited with developing and refining techniques to detect arsenic poisoning. Other historic accounts include extraction of alkaloids from postmortem specimens (Jean Servais Stas ~1851) as evidence in a nicotine poisoning case (Levine 2003). The chemical analysis of organs and tissues became the basis for establishing poisoning. Much of the early history of toxicology addressed whether someone had been poisoned and how to treat poisoning.