Clues from the past can help people navigate through the mass of information available in today’s field of forensic science, a key theme running throughout a new documentary adapted from a University of Wisconsin journalism professor’s book.
Deborah Blum’s book, “The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York” was adapted into a PBS documentary which aired Jan. 7. The documentary offers an in-depth look at early 20th century forensic science. Through the eyes of medical examiner Charles Norris, Blum unlocks the passion and struggle behind the history.
Blum said the adaptation process went quickly and painlessly. While Blum is not a film writer or director, she said she was happy with the way the documentary turned out.
Blum said she did not want to be the overbearing author who demanded everything be done according to her book.
“I made it very clear that I had no idea what I was doing when it came to creating the film. I just wanted to be there when someone had a question about the book or the history behind it,” she said.
In the 1920s, when forensic science was still in its infancy, poisonings ran rampant in New York City because the crime was difficult to detect, Blum said, and most poisons were as close as the kitchen pantry.
While many things have changed, Blum said the past still has lessons to teach.
“I think you can’t figure out where you are going until you know how you got there,” she said.
The documentary demonstrates how forensic science has come a long way since the days of Norris and how poisoners have all but disappeared. Today, we know so much about specific chemicals that individuals are often overwhelmed, Blum said.
This dearth of information makes it essential to effectively navigate the sea of information available in forensic science, she said.
“Even when we have a body of knowledge, we still have to make use of what we know,” Blum said.
The best way to find out what is already known is to look into the past, which is what Blum sought to do through the documentary.
The past is not something to be forgotten but something to be explored, Blum said. It should be examined, not only in the context of early forensic science and poisoning, but also in every aspect of knowledge and research, she said.
“We’re never going to get any smarter if we let the lessons of the past go away,” Blum said.
She added it is important for students of all ages to learn how far forensic science has come. The topic draws individuals into both the history and the story behind it, she said.
“I think it makes people think about the fascination of our chemical world and I think that matters,” Blum said.
UW junior Samantha Toth said she had watch the PBS documentary and liked it.
“I thought it was really interesting and I actually learned a lot more than I expected,” Toth said, adding that it had offered a captivating look into the infancy of forensic science.