When Deborah Blum is presented with the proverbial “pick your poison” decision, she doesn’t hesitate. It’s arsenic all the way.
“Arsenic is one of the most interesting poisons. It’s tasteless, unlike cyanide and strychnine. So it was loved, homicidally,” she says. “It was so commonly used in the early 19th century that it was nicknamed ‘inheritance powder.’”
Blum should know. She’s the author of the best-selling “The Poisoner’s Handbook” (2010), which makes her the ideal guest to speak at the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Science on Screen presentation of Frank Capra’s 1944 comedy “Arsenic and Old Lace” on March 16 at 7 p.m.
In the film, theater critic Mortimer Brewster (Cary Grant) and his bride Elaine Harper (Priscilla Lane) are headed to their honeymoon in Niagara Falls when the couple pays a visit to the Brooklyn home of Brewster’s two elderly aunts and eccentric uncle. Brewster stumbles upon a corpse, who turns out to be one of many victims of his aunts’ “benevolent” scheme to help lonely old men find eternal peace by spiking their elderberry wine with arsenic.
The not-so-benevolent uses of arsenic, and the two scientists who pioneered catching those criminals through forensic detection, figure prominently in “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” which was later turned into an acclaimed PBS documentary of the same title. Blum is enthusiastic about the chance to incorporate chemistry and toxicology with popular entertainment for a non-scientific audience. Following a reception at the theater, she’ll give a pre-screening talk about the history of arsenic and its “importance as a poison in human history.”
A Georgia native who now teaches at the University of Wisconsin, Blum will soon be moving to Boston full time. In July, she’ll assume her new position as director of MIT’s Knight Science Journalism program.
It was as a science writer for the Sacramento Bee that Blum’s series of articles on the professional, ethical, and emotional conflicts between scientists who use animals in their research and animal rights activists earned her the Pulitzer Prize for beat reporting in 1992. Two years later she expanded “The Monkey Wars” into her first book.
The intersection of science and culture is the mission of Science on Screen, which has been cultivating an audience of film lovers and geeks in Brookline for 10 years. Five years ago, the Coolidge received its first major grant from the New York-based Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to expand the program nationally. With three Sloan Foundation grants totaling just over $1 million to date, the Coolidge has awarded 71 grants to 38 independent theaters nationwide so that each could create its own Science on Screen program.
For the second year in a row, many of these independent theaters will simultaneously host programs in their cities, pairing different films with science and technology experts. Also on March 16, for example, Amherst Cinema will screen the documentary “South: Ernest Shackleton and the Endurance Expedition” introduced by UMass Amherst geosciences professor Julie Brigham-Grette. That same day, the Maine Film Center in Waterville presents Nicolas Roeg’s “Walkabout,” with remarks by Colby College anthropology processor David J. Strohl.
“Our aim is to enhance public understanding of science and technology by presenting difficult and complex subjects in an entertaining and informative way,” says Beth Gilligan, who oversees Science on Screen for the Coolidge. “We’ve never done a poison-themed Science on Screen. It’s great to have a comedy, and a female speaker from the science world.”
For more information about Science on Screen, go to www.coolidge.org/programs/science-on-screen