A to Z Challenge: W (poisons & stories of their use)

Curare: From the Rain Forest to the Operating Room – Science Talk Archive
One alkaloid plant used for curare
From: New York Botanical Garden


Fast Facts:
– Commonly known as curare
– Made from a mix of plants
– Causes paralysis
– Poison used on arrows in South America
– Used in the Dr X killings

Curare is not a specific poison, it is actually the common name given to a mixture of various plant extracts. It is made by boiling the bark of one various plant alkaloid sources (and there are dozens) until it is a paste (allowing it to be used on arrow and dart heads). Traditionally used for hunting and for therapeutic purposes, it is also a symbol of wealth in indigenous tribes of South America.

Curare is a neuromuscular blocker, causing paralysis of every voluntarily controlled muscle in the body which includes the diaphragm, meaning victims asphyxiate (although it doesn’t affect the heart muscle). Spontaneous breathing commences after the affects of curare wear off, which can take 30 minutes and up to 8 hours. This means artificial respiration will keep a person alive. Therapeutic uses include treatment for tetanus and strychnine poisoning and for surgical procedures (due to its use as a paralysing agent).

Making curare for arrow tip
From: Iquitos Times

During WWII Bishop Theodore Romzha wasn’t liked by communist officials due to his refusal to follow their orders. He was attacked and taken to hospital where he was recovering until the nuns caring for him were dismissed and a new nurse brought in. Later that night the bishop was found dead. The nurse had poisoned him with an injection of curare on the orders of Nikita Khrushchev, a high ranking communist official.

Dr Mario Jascalevich became the Chief Surgeon at Riverdell Hospital in New Jersey in 1965 when patients began to die unexpectedly. Doctors at the hospital reviewed the cases of the many cases (it is suspected there were more than 25 patients killed) and noted several similarities: all patients had an IV, deaths were sudden and unexpected, involved respiratory arrest, many occurred around 8am and Dr Jascalevich had been near all patients.

One of the doctors opened Jascalevich’s locker and found several vials of curare, including some syringes with curare in them. Jascalevich said he’d been using the curare as an experiment in his work on liver biopsies with dogs. Because a later investigation found dog hair and blood in his locker there was no way to prove anything so the case was dropped. In 1967 Jascalevich left the hospital and the mortality rate decreased.

The New York Times received a tip in 1975 that led a reported to start investigating the case. On the basis of the expose published by the report the Deputy Medical Examiner for New York reviewed the case notes, concluding that the majority of cases could not be explained. As technology had improved in the time that had passed, it was now possible to detect tiny amounts of curare in the victims and exhumations were conducted. Curare was found in several of the bodies and Jascalevich charged with murder.

The prosecution and defence battled it out on the basis of forensics, each with their own expert. The main opint of difference was whether chemicals, such as embalming fluid, could have impacted the detection of curare on exhumation.

The jury found Jascalevich not guilty, however his licence to practice medicine was revoked by the New Jersey Medical Licensing board for seven unrelated counts of malpractice.


19 comments on “A to Z Challenge: W (poisons & stories of their use)

  1. Giggling Fattie

    April 27, 2021 at 9:17 pm

    Oh wow this one had some DRAMA!

  2. The plant is pretty beautiful, as often when it comes to very dangerous species!

  3. I didn’t know curare was a compound rather than a single botanical element.
    Black and White: W for Workshop

    • There is a plant which is called curare as well, which I think is where the confusion comes from (it’s one of the plants used to make the compound, which makes it even more confusing).

  4. I hadn’t realized curare was a generic term, nor that a therapeutic use was for tetanus. My grandmother talked about meeting someone in the hospital when she was young that had tetanus and what a horrific thing lockjaw was.

    • The name curare comes from indigenous terms for the poison they use on their dart and arrow tips. Every indigenous groups seems to have used a slightly different combination of plants, but the basics were the same.

  5. Shades of Josef Mengele.

    Maybe it will be the next Botox

    • Yeah, there seem to be too many like them in this world. I wonder if they saw themselves as some sort of God, deciding who would live or die?

      I’m sure the plants used to make it are being studied for alternate medical uses.

  6. Gotta be careful with that improving technology. Just because something is impossible to detect now doesn’t mean it won’t be in several years. Too bad they never were able to convict that doctor.

    • Exactly. There have been a number of people (aside from the obvious DNA technology) that have been caught years later because of improving technologies. I wonder if it ever crosses their minds?

  7. I remember in one of Sydney Sheldon books, there is a mention of a man who uses whips for his sexual fantasies and someone poisons the whip to kill him…. the nurse story reminds me of that …


  8. I have heard of octopus sting that can paralyze a person … In one of Sydney Sheldon novels a man uses a whip for his sexual fantasies ….he has high security but the assassin manages to kill him by poisoning the whip !


  9. I associate curare with Sherlock Holmes, but maybe I’m making that up. It’s been a long time since I read any of those mysteries!

    • No, you aren’t making it up. There is definitely curare as a murder weapon in Sherlock Holmes.

  10. I hadn’t known that it was a mixture, or that it has a medicinal use. Very strange about the doctor! Why would you do it?

    I’m reading a book called Reasonable Doubt, which is just about the messes made in the Australian system over the years. with wrong verdicts given due to errors made by so-called experts. And of course, forensics got it REALLY wrong with Lindy Chamberlain!

    • The Lindy Chamberlain case makes for good what not to do study. I wonder if they just wanted to wrap the case up quickly?

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