POWER OF POISON

By Lisa Potter, science writer, University Marketing and Communications

At the Natural History Museum of Utah, visitors fill the seats of a tiny theater styled with glass vials, beakers and a periodic table of the elements. A man in a white lab coat has just presented the details of a real case of arsenic poisoning that spurred the beginning of toxicology, the study of poison.

The scientist turns to the audience, holds up a spoonful of fake arsenic powder and asks, “Do you dare me to eat this?”

Three children huddled together in the front row giggle nervously. One yells, “Yes!”

Jacob Weitlauf, a theater student at the University of Utah, leads a one-person play on the origins of toxicology.

PHOTO CREDIT: Lisa Potter

Jacob Weitlauf, a theater student at the University of Utah, leads a one-person play on the origins of toxicology.

The scientist, played by Jacob Weitlauf, a musical theater student at the University of Utah, gulps down the powder and steps out from behind his laboratory.

“What’s going to happen to me? Well, I could either get sick and recover in a couple of days…or I could drop dead,” Weitlauf grins. “Only time will tell.”

The one-person play in the Detecting Poison theater is part of “The Power of Poison,” a new traveling exhibit that unpacks the science and cultural history of the poisons in our world. From toxic tinctures to venomous vipers, Mad Hatters to Mandrake roots, the exhibit offers a mix of hands-on activities that encourage explorers of all ages to learn about the poisons that can hurt us, and some that can heal us.

“We all have a horrified fascination with poison,” says Sarah B. George, executive director of the museum. “There’s something for everybody—hands-on activities, science, art and literature. The exhibit appeals to people with different learning styles.”

NHMU is the only stop on “The Power of Poison” tour that displays live animals. When visitors step into “Poison in Nature,” they enter the Chocó forest of Columbia where live golden poison arrow frogs peer up from their tanks. These brightly-colored amphibians can fit into your shirt pocket, but they would be a deadly accessory; their skin secretes a substance so toxic that the poison from one frog can kill 10 grown humans.

From Snow White’s sleepy snack to the witches brew from Macbeth, enchanted poison has always been a go-to plot point for storytellers. Medicine men and women who used plants to heal the sick were thought have magical powers. “Poison of Myth and Legend” reveals the truth behind some of literature’s most famous elixirs and the science behind folk medicine.

Modern medicine may have squashed sorcery in favor of molecules and chemical equations, but the exhibit’s technology brings magic back into the museum. One display features an ancient tome of poisonous plants that spring to life at the touch of your hand.

“The book is my favorite. It fits so well with things we’ve seen in movies and TV, like Harry Potter, but it’s amazing to see something like that brought to life,” says Kris Chapman, public relations assistant at the museum.

Other visitors agree; kids, parents and grandparents all shriek with delight when the animated sketches dance across the page.

Cleopatra claims to have killed herself with the bite of an asp. Napoleon said he was poisoned with arsenic. Toxicology was invented after their deaths, so historians can only speculate how they died. “Villains and Victims” teases apart the myth and the facts of history’s infamous poisonings.

The final stop of the exhibit, “Poison for Good,” explores how scientists have used plant and animal toxins to heal human ailments. The native Utah lizard, the Gila Monster, is the only venomous lizard in North America. It produces a neurotoxin in its saliva that makes for a painful bite, but has been found to coax our cells into producing insulin and is already being used to treat diabetes.

The  “Power of Poison” runs at the Natural History Museum of Utah from Oct. 15 to April 15.