The History of Contribution of Forensic Toxicology in Crime Investigation, By Dr. Richa Sharma

This article traces the historical background of development and use of forensic science in civil and criminal investigation since antiquities to contemporary times and secondly explores the extent to which the forensic science has proved useful in investigation and trails. Forensic Science comprises of various branches of science and in this paper, the author focuses on forensic toxicology. The paper deals with the various tests prevalent in ancient India as depicted in the shastras and smritis.

Use of Forensic medicine

While tracing the history of human society we come across the fact that science and law developed simultaneously. For instance, law and medicine problems are found in the written records of early society of Egypt, Sumer, Babylon, India and China dating back to 4000 to 3000 B.C. The information about poison given in Chinese Materia Medica is of about 3000 B.C. while code of Hammurabi provides, first known medico legal code of 2200 B.C. In about 300 B.C., the Rabbis of Rabinical Court, responsible for implementing the Jewish Laws, sought the aid of medical expert in the administration of justice. Later Greek and Roman medical men collaborated in the development of the forensic medicine. Manusmriti also talks about many sexual matters and examination under the law of India. One of the oldest and important sources which provide the information about forensic investigation is Kautilyas’ Arthashastra. The Arthashstras of Kautilya provides useful information about the classification of the methods of murder and use of forensic medical investigation into such cases. Further Manusmiriti’s Chapter VII directs the judge to use the primary level of forensic psychology while observing the accused.

Forensic Toxicology is a branch of Forensic Medicine dealing with medical and legal aspects of the harmful effects of chemicals on human beings. In other way to define this science we can say, Forensic Toxicology is an interdisciplinary science using toxicology and other disciplines such as analytical chemistry, pharmacology and clinical chemistry to aid medico legal investigation of death and adverse effect of drugs and chemicals on various biological systems . The primary concern for forensic toxicology is not the legal outcome of the toxicological investigation but the technology and techniques for obtaining and interpreting the results. The study of toxicology includes the study of all substances, natural or synthetic, that cause damage to living tissues and have an injurious or fatal effect on the body irrespective of whether they are ingested, inhaled, or absorbed or injected through the skin .

Toxicology in Ancient world

Toxicology from the ancient world, medieval times and Renaissance period is a science that is rooted in rich and interesting history of mankind. Reference to the poison substance can be traced back to the use of natural poisons in hunting, “medicines”, assassinations, warfare or for other purposes. Early records show that humans did indeed use poisons rather effectively. History manifests that it was not uncommon to retain the services of a poisoner to rid oneself of an inconvenient spouse or political rival or to take the services of poison “tester” to ensure that the food and drink to be consumed would not result in one’s own demise! The development of toxicology as a science has been, like most other disciplines, a long process of slow and steady growth from the work and deeds of humankind.

One of the most interesting anecdotes resulting from the combination of both ancient history and current toxicological research is the story of King Mithridates, King of Pontus (120-63 BC) who according to toxicology legend was so afraid of becoming a casualty of political poisoning that he concocted a potion from a great number of herbs for his own consumption. It is believed that he understood that by consuming small amounts of potential poisons, he might protect himself from any would-be poisoner i.e. he believed in the effectiveness of hormesis. Apparently, his plans worked so well that he gained a name for himself as one so mighty he could not be killed. Unfortunately, it is said that when circumstances were such that he desired to kill himself, he was unable to do so by ingesting poison and had to be run through by a sword instead.

Toxicology in Ancient India

The ancient Indian scriptures contain references to the poisoning of kings, the doings of professional poisoners (Vish Kanya and Vish Bal) and of widespread organized poisoning in pre-historic and historic times. In Kalpasthana, Chikitsasthana and Uttarasthana of the Shastras, symptoms and antidotes of poisons are given in detail.
The origin of toxicology in India can be traced to the Vedic period. The earliest mention of poisons is found in the Atharva Veda. Remedies for many ailments, including poisoning were discussed in this text. Another major work in this field was the Agnivesa Charaka Samhita. This treatise contains a detailed description of the signs, symptoms and treatment for commonly found poisons. The third major work on Indian medicine, which contained a chapter on poisons, was the Susruta Samhita. Susruta has described several mode of poisoning in ancient India. He has explained how the poisons are mixed with food, drink, honey, medicine, bathing water, anointing oils, perfumes, eyelash pigments and snuff; or sprinkled over clothes, beds, couches, shoes, garlands and jewellery, saddles of forces etc. He has also described secret poisoning of wells and other drinking water to destroy enemies.

Agad tantra (toxicology), a branch of Ayurveda, basically deals with the toxins. It mentions the way to get rid of poisoning in the body. There happens to be a mention of wide range of poisons which are either of animal or plant origin. It also refers to poisons derived from minerals like arsenic etc. and artificial poisoning substances. Charak samhita, sushurut samhita and ashtang samghrah also mentions about the importance of Agad tantra in our lifestyle. It has also mentioned about the combination of the food stuffs that is to be avoided as they can become poison after coming in contact with each other. It also mentions about the antidotes of the poisons.

Great variety has been found in the modus operandi of the poisoners in India. The methods used were crude at times. Poisoning is not preferred method for committing homicide in India because more definitive means such as weapons are available for the purpose. However where homicidal poisoning is committed, the motive does play a role in the choice of poison. Thus the poisoner might employ Dhatura freely enough to intoxicate the victim he intends to rob. Suicide by the taking of opium or arsenic is occasionally met with but like suicide in general, it is uncommon. Arsenic is used as white arsenic or as one or the other form of the natural sulphides. It is given in enormous doses. The recovery of several hundred grains of arsenic from a dish of curry is no uncommon occurrence. Curry is favorite mode for the administration of the poison; it effectually disguises arsenic, white red or yellow.

According to a legend which is a later jaina invention, while Chanakya served as the Prime Minister of Chandragupta Maurya, he started adding small amounts of poison in Chandragupta’s food so that he would get used to it. The aim of this was to prevent the Emperor from being poisoned by enemies. One day the queen Durdha shared the food with the Emperor while she was pregnant. Since she was not used to eating poisoned food, she died. Chanakya decided that the baby should not die; hence he cut open the belly of the queen and took out the baby. A drop (bindu in Sanskrit) of poison had passed on the baby’s head, and hence Chanakya named him Bindusara. Bindusara became a great king and was father of the greatest Mauryan Emperor since Chandragupta – Asoka.


In ancient India, test of poisoned food and other materials is witnessed like for Kautilya being a king, to ensure his personal safety, he was acclimatized to food mixed with poison. According to him, in a well-guarded place the head cook should supervise the preparation of different varieties of delicious dishes. The king is advised to partake of such fresh dishes after making oblations, first to the fire and then to the birds.
When the flame and the smoke turn blue and crackle, and when birds that eat the oblation die, the presence of poison in the dish was to be inferred. When the vapor arising from cooked rice has the colour of the neck of a peacock and appears chill as if suddenly cooled, when vegetables possess an unnatural colour and are watery and hardened and appear to have suddenly turned dry having broken layers of blackish form and being devoid of smell, touch and taste natural to them; when utensils reflect light either more or less than usual and are covered with the layer of foam at their edges; when any liquid preparation possesses streaks on its surface; when liquor and water possess reddish streaks; when curd is marked with black and dark streaks and honey with white streaks; presence of poison was to be inferred.

(Note: The present research is part of book titled “Law, Development and Socio-Economic Policy” published under the authority of GNLU.)


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