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IN RELATION TO
MEDICAL JURISPRUDENCE, PHYSIOLOGY, AND
THE PRACTICE OF PHYSIC.
ROBERT CHRISTISON, M.D.
PROFESSOR OF MEDICAL JURISPRUDENCE AND POLICE IN THE
FELLOW OF THE ROYAL COLLEGE OF PHYSICIANS, AND ROYAL SOCIETY OF
PRINTED FOR ADAM BLACK, NORTH BRIDGE;
THE frequency of murder, suicide, and accidental death by poison, the interest usually attached to such events, the nicety of the inquiries by which their nature is brought to light, and the necessity of a comprehensive knowledge of medicine for their elucidation,-render Toxicology, in the eye of all well-informed persons, an important and essential part of the studies of every medical man. This is acknowledged on all hands, so that even in Britain, where the other departments of Medical Jurisprudence are only now forcing their way slowly on public attention, the branch which treats of poisons has been for some time pursued with avidity by the student, and cultivated with success by the scientific physician. In such circumstances it appears surprising, that the present should be the first original and systematic work on the subject, which has been published in the English language since the beginning of the present century.
The object of the science of Toxicology is fourfold. It supplies antidotes for the various poisons; it furnishes the physiologist with valuable instruments of research in his investigations into the laws of the animal economy; it aids the physician in his inquiries as to the action of many energetic drugs; and it collects from the numerous branches of medical knowledge,
as well as from collateral sciences, the materials of the most important department of medical jurisprudence.
It is only since Toxicology began to assume an accurate and systematic form, and chiefly since it was matured by the indefatigable labours of Orfila, that the physician can truly say he has been in possession of Antid tes. It is to the modern toxicologist that he owes the discovery of the virtues of albumen as an antidote for corrosive sublimate and verdigris,of bark for tartar-emetic,-of the alkaline sulphates for sugar of lead,—of the alkaline and earthy chlorides for liver of sulphur,-of ammonia and chlorine for prussic acid; it is to the toxicologist that he is indebted for ascertaining the superiority of magnesia and chalk over other antidotes for the mineral acids and oxalic acid, and the superiority of vinegar or oil for the mineral alkalis. It was also a toxicologist who first proposed the application of the stomach-pump in the treatment of poisoning.-These, however, are far from being the only advantages which have been derived from applying this science to the discovery of antidotes. The study of poisons, in their relations to chemistry and physiology, has in the course of a few years expelled from the practice of medicine a host of popular remedies, the offspring of hasty empiricism,-which instead of being beneficial, were often not only useless, but even absolutely hurtful. Not to mention the many inert remedies which have thus been consigned to oblivion, I may refer to the late discovery of the bad effects of the alkalis in poisoning with arsenic and oxalic acid,―of the alkaline sulphurets in poisoning with arsenic and other metallic compounds,-of the acetic acid in poisoning with the salts of copper, or with opium and other narcotic vegetables,-and of fixed oil in poisoning with cantharides.
Besides thus discovering many antidotes, and proving the inefficacy of others, the toxicologist has advanced a step farther still, and has saved the physician much unnecessary labour in future, by laying down the general principles by which the search for new antidotes must be regulated.
To those who have watched the rapid strides with which Physiology has advanced during the last twenty years, it will at once be apparent, how powerful an instrument of research that science has found in the effects of poisons on the animal body. The observation of these effects has led in a peculiar manner to our present enlarged knowledge of the laws of absorption. It has greatly aided the experimentalist in ascertaining the respective part performed by the veins and the lymphatics, in the discharge of this function: It has contributed to the discovery of the permeability of the living tissues, and the influence which this property has in producing many of the phenomena of absorption: It has helped to unfold the power exercised by absorption in the developement of many vital actions, which were formerly ascribed to nervous operations :-In short, it has been one of the principal guides by which the progress of Magendie and his followers has been directed in their brilliant career of discovery.
But independently of thus furnishing the physiologist with the means or instruments of investigation, the action of poisons on the body forms of itself a deeply interesting department of physiological science, and one which abounds with important practical conclusions. From the discoveries in this department are deduced many of the general rules for the treatment of poisoning, as well as the solution of some principal questions in medico-legal practice.
I have likewise said, that the science of Toxicology