5 Mar 2020

Apothecary Anecdotes: Model Aeroplanes, murder, and mistaken identity

Ardd Fotaneg · Botanic Garden

Castor oil,  obtained from the seeds of the castor oil plant Ricin communis, has for thousands of years been used as a very potent laxative.

So potent, in fact, that many regimes have used force feeding of castor oil as a punishment. The dehydrating effects of the oil-induced diarrhea has been known to cause death.
Fortunately for me, my introduction to castor oil was via friends who made model aeroplanes,  the fuel used was ether with a small amount of castor oil added.  ( I doubt whether very young teenagers would be allowed to purchase ether nowadays )


In the residue left behind once the oil has been pressed out is a compound that is reputed to be the most toxic in the world, namely ricin.

It achieved notoriety in the Georgi Markov case, where a Bulgarian dissident was apparently injected with a very small ricin filled pellet from a specially made umbrella.
However, I remain unconvinced for a number of reasons.

1. The alleged assassin dropped the umbrella – I was a small arms range supervisor in the military, and dropping your weapon is a big no- no.

2. If the amount of Ricin had been too small, the body would have fairly quickly produced anti ricin as an antidote.  There would always be a possibility of the pellet retaining some of the ricin, meaning that a fatal dose would not have been received by the victim

3. Certain online encyclopaedia differ from the actual pathology report in at least one critical way,  which has been repeated in books and at least one TV documentary.  The pathologist sent the pellet to Porton Down, and not tissue samples.  Porton Down did not confirm the presence of ricin, but said it may be.

4. Around the time of Markovs death someone else came forward, saying they believed that they had also been shot with a pellet.  This pellet was confirmed to contain ricin, which was sealed in with a wax coating.  This suggests that the planners of the murder had already tried and failed,  and I don’t understand why they then used the same technique again. Or was this a red herring?

Mistaken Identity!
The ornamental plant Fatsia japonica is sometimes called false castor oil, and I have seen it advertised on American garden websites as simply Castor Oil.  This has resulted in bad, and ill-informed people, attempting to extract ricin from it!  They have then placed the resultant goo on the door handles of police cars,  hoping that the ricin would poison a policeman through the hands.  In fact, Fatsia japonica is an ideal ornamental plant, thrives on neglect, and can be easily divided. (I now have several in my garden, all from one I bought a few years ago).  I am not aware of any toxic elements in it.