16 Mar 2020

Apothecary Anecdotes: Agatha Christie

Ardd Fotaneg · Botanic Garden

During a chat with a visitor who expressed an interest in Agatha Christie, I flippantly mentioned that the famous writer only seemed to use cyanide and arsenic.

The visitor tactfully informed me that in fact Agatha Christie had worked as a nurse and a pharmacy dispenser through 2 world wars, and was very knowledgable about poisons.

I have created a shelf of a few  Agatha Christie poisons as a mark of respect to the visitor.

Choral Hydrate (And Then There Were None) –  fast-acting, used in knockout pills. It is also a powerful antiseptic and has been used as a spray for tonsillitis.

Strychnine (The Mysterious Affair at Styles) has been used to improve appetite during convalescence, and to treat certain snakebites. Part of the treatment for Chloral Hydrate poisoning.

Procaine  ( One, Two, Buckle my Shoe). Is used as a local anaesthetic , and is a synthetic substitute for cocaine.  Treatment includes hot strong coffee and other stimulants.

Arsenic (4.50 From Paddington). Usually in the form of Arsenic trioxide, has been used to treat psoriasis and eczema, and to improve complexion. and as a rat poison. Now used to treat certain blood cancers.

Atropine (The Thumb Mark of St. Peter ). One of the poisons in Belladonna and other plants of the same family., it is a stimulant causing restlessness , talkativeness, and delirium. Treated with tannic acid and a stomach pump.

Gelsimine ( The Big Four /The Yellow Jasmine Mystery) originally obtained from Yellow Jasmine. Medical uses have included treatment of acne, anxiety, ear pain, and migraine. There doesn’t seem to be an antidote, and treating the symptoms is the only option. This would include a stomach pump, then feeding the patient activated charcoal.  Occasionally atropine would be administered to counter the effects of Gelsimine.

Digitalis/ Digitalin. (The Herb of Death).  Originally obtained from foxglove, and was once used for ulcers and seizures.  Now used for certain heart conditions. Use of Digitalin can cause blurred vision and a greenish/yellowish tinge to anything that is looked at, and it is very likely that Vincent van Gogh’s “Yellow Period” may have been due to being treated for seizures.

Ricin ( House of Lurking Death). Obtained from the seeds of the castor oil plant. The oil contains little or no ricin, which is extracted from the pulped residue. Occasionally very small amounts of ricin has caused the body to produce anti ricin and build up immunity. The murderer in the book had a series of pinpricks on the arm which had been used to inject microscopic amounts of ricin to build up immunity.

I suspect that Agatha Christie was more knowledgeable about poisons than plants. My interpretation of the story is that the castor oil plant was a permanent outdoors shrub. In fact, having grown a few myself, once the temperature drops to below about 7 degrees, the plant starts to die back, and will certainly not survive frosts.  They need to be overwintered in a warm area- I have successfully overwintered a couple on my kitchen windowsill, but even then there is leaf drop.


I was once in an Agatha Christie play, Spider’s Web.  I have a feeling that I got the part not because of my rugged good looks or amazing stage presence, but because I could play a dead body falling out of a cupboard.  I’m almost ashamed to admit that I reprised the scene from ” The Killing of Sister George” where Beryl Reid’s character after her ” death scene”   spent a lot of time winking and making faces at other cast members.