Dangerous toxins were used by hat makers for hundreds of years — poisons that caused tremors, pathological shyness and extreme irritability.
The mistake gave birth to the expression, “mad as a hatter.”
This and dozens of other morbidly fascinating tidbits of information can be found at the Indiana State Museum’s “The Power of Poison” exhibit, on loan from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City through Feb. 11.
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The exhibit covers the spectrum from poisons found in nature to poisons of literature and myth. Visitors should allow at least two hours to take in all you never needed (or even wanted) to know — but once you start exploring, you won’t be able to look away.
Perhaps the most startling take-away from this exhibit is the prevalence of poison all around us in nature and in the home: chocolate, houseplants, even table salt — all deadly in varying degrees.
Also chilling are the icons on the informational placards found throughout the display indicating the effects and concern level for each poison: a paralytic makes nerves unable to transmit impulses, resulting in cardiac arrest; hemotoxins block the blood’s ability to clot, causing a victim to bleed uncontrollably; a cardiotoxin results in convulsions and heart failure.
After reading of the horrific effects of various toxics, the placards concludes with the question, “Should I worry?” In most cases, the answer is an emphatic yes.
Suspenseful jungle adventure stories and movies have taught us the Amazon tribes often tipped arrows and blow darts with poison from the golden poison frogs. But it isn’t the frogs themselves that are poisonous; instead, scientists suspect their toxicity comes from a beetle in the frog’s diet.
Visitors learn how plants, insects and animals protect themselves in nature, how to identify poisonous snakes, and how some poisons became medicines.
We learn that manioc — one of the food staples of South American natives — comes from cassava, a plant high in cyanide.
When soaked and rinsed repeatedly, then dried, it can be ground into flour that is safe to eat.
The display doesn’t explain how the natives discovered or developed this process, leaving visitors to wonder how many died in pursuit of good cooking.
We learn about a rite of passage for Brazilian men that involves inserting their hands into mittens stuffed with venomous bullet ants.
The manchineel tree, found in central and South America, has such toxic sap that standing beneath the tree when it’s raining can cause blisters on the skin or blindness from exposure to rainwater dripping from the leaves.
After removing “visit an Amazon rain forest” from my personal bucket list, I followed the exhibit into the more fantastical realm of poisons in literature and legend.
An African legend tells how death was introduced into the world when a mischievous rabbit offered poisonous roots to man. The more familiar story of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” breaks down the contents of the witches’ cauldron, with its “eye of newt and toe of frog, wool of bat and tongue of dog.”
And Snow White could have indeed ingested a poison that could create the appearance of death, so the story goes.
Near the end of the exhibit are three interactive computer games where players are asked to look at the evidence and determine the cause of the poisoning.
One scenario takes place aboard a ship where the crew has been exposed to lead from canned foods; another involves a walk in the woods. The third, called Pet Detective, begins with a frisky Jack Russell terrier romping around the yard, that suddenly falls ill. Pet detectives have to determine what caused Skippy to get sick. Was it a plant in the garden, bad food in the garbage, rat poison nearby?
Parents with kids and pet-lovers might steer clear of this third choice. It’s disturbing enough to see the animated dog seize up without finding out what happens if you fail to determine the cause of the poisoning (which brings a life-saving antidote).
Still, this excellent and informative exhibit — “The Power of Poison” — is a spellbinding tour through an underworld of nature and chemicals and well worth the time.
“The Power of Poison”
Through Feb. 11
Indiana State Museum
650 W. Washington St., Indianapolis
Visit indianamuseum.org for admission and operating hours