A key concept of toxicology is that “the dose makes the poison.”
This dictum is shorthand for an observation made in the 16th century by the Renaissance physician Paracelsus (1493–1541) (translated from the German):
“What is there that is not poison? All things are poison and nothing is without poison. Solely the dose determines that a thing is not a poison.”
Another variable that shapes potential harm is form.
For example, nitroglycerine can be used to blow things up or stave off a heart attack. Dose and form make the product.
Ascanio Sobrero discovered nitroglycerine in 1847 in Turin, Italy after studying in Paris. Sobrero thought that his concoction (glycerol plus nitric and sulfuric acids) was “too destructive and volatile to have any practical uses.”
Enter Alfred Nobel. You know, the Nobel Peace Prize guy.
Born in Stockholm, Sweden, Nobel (1833 – 1896) was a “chemist, engineer, and industrialist.” His family moved to St. Petersburg, Russia in 1837. By age 16, he was a “competent chemist” who was fluent in several languages. The family returned to Sweden after his father’s company went bankrupt in 1859.
Nobel began experimenting with explosives in a lab he built in Stockholm. In the mid-1800s, the “only dependable explosive for use in mines was black powder, a form of gunpowder.”
In 1863, he invented a practical detonator for a metal container of liquid nitroglycerin, even though the compound was “extremely dangerous to handle.” He began mass production in 1864. By 1865, he had invented the blasting cap, which “inaugurated the modern use of high explosives.”
In 1867, Nobel struck gold, so to speak, with his invention of dynamite.
He discovered that mixing nitroglycerin with an absorbent compound (diatomaceous earth) yielded a safer and more stable product, a paste. He could shape the paste into rods which, when dried and wrapped, were “suitable for insertion into drilling holes.” He named it ‘dynamite’, from the Greek dynamis (“power”).
Two patents (Great Britain, 1867; United States, 1868) were the first step to fortune and fame and would spawn almost 100 factories across Europe that manufactured explosives and ammunition.
Though Nobel was essentially a pacifist and hoped that the destructive powers of his inventions would help bring an end to war, his view of mankind and nations was pessimistic.
Perhaps that is why his will established a trust funded by 94 percent of his total assets. The Nobel Foundation was to honor achievements in “physical science, chemistry, medical science or physiology, literary work and service toward peace.”
Today there is only one manufacturer of dynamite in North America.
That’s not the end of the story!
Nitroglycerin has another use, as a medicine.
It was in Nobel’s dynamite factories in the late 1860s that the antianginal effect of nitroglycerin was discovered. Two interesting observations were made. First, factory workers on Monday mornings often complained of headaches that disappeared over the weekends. Second, factory workers suffering from angina pectoris or heart failure often experienced relief from chest pain during the work week, but which recurred on weekends. Both effects were attributed to the vasodilator action of nitroglycerin.
In 1867, Lauder Brunton, a British physician and “the father of modern pharmacology,” discovered that organic nitrates could relieve the pains of angina pectoris. Repeated doses, he found, led to “pharmacological resistance.”
It would be another century before scientists understood (a) how nitroglycerin worked (the scientists were awarded the Nobel prize in medicine) and (b) that dose truly matters.
When a patient receives a continuous dose for hours, nitroglycerin increases the severity of any subsequent heart attack. Yet another illustration of the observation Paracelsus first made in the 16th century.
Dynamite and this day
On the morning of 15 September 1963, dynamite destroyed part of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. The explosion killed four young girls: Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins (each 14 years old) and Denise McNair (11).
It also maimed Sarah Collins (12), Addie Mae’s sister.
The population of Birmingham was 40 percent Black. However, “there were no black police officers, firefighters, bus drivers or bank tellers. None of the downtown stores would employ black salesclerks.” That led to sit-ins, marches, mass arrests.
The south had remained a land of segregation after the Civil War. In Birmingham, “the most segregated city in the United States,” segregation was the law. For example, one statute read: “It shall be unlawful for a Negro and a white person to play together or in company with each other in any game of cards, dice, dominoes, checkers, baseball, softball, football, basketball or similar games.”
In 1954, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that segregated public schools were unconstitutional. In 1957, Birmingham minister Fred Shuttlesworth began a legal battle to force the Birmingham school district to integrate.
It’s now 1963, and Alabama’s schools are still segregated. Violence is rising like the heat and humidity of summer.
- April 12, 1963: Martin Luther King is arrested for participating in a mass public demonstration. He wrote his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” on the 16th.
- May 10, 1963: Birmingham officials “agreed to desegregate lunch counters, restrooms, drinking fountains, and fitting rooms, to hire African Americans in stores as salesmen and clerks and to release the jailed demonstrators.”
- May 11, 1963: “a bomb destroyed the Gaston Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr. had been staying and another damaged the house of King’s brother, A. D. King.”
- June 11, 1963: Governor George Wallace stood in a doorway at the University of Alabama to block two black students from enrolling in the summer term. “With U.S. troops escorting the Negroes, and State police on hand to preserve order, Alabama’s integration was accomplished without violence.” President Kennedy gave a national radio and television address, “appealing to the nation to give Negroes equal rights.”
- August 20, 1963: the first fire-bombing of the home of NAACP attorney Arthur Shores,
- September 02, 1963: the scheduled first day of school for Tuskegee High School students. “Wallace issued an executive order postponing the start of classes for a week and placed hundreds of state troopers around the high school to enforce the order.”
- September 04, 1963: the second fire-bombing of the home of NAACP attorney Arthur Shores.
- September 09, 1963: “President John F. Kennedy took control of the Alabama National Guard,” which Wallace had dispatched to block Tuskegee High School from opening. With the local police maintaining order, “nine previously all-white high schools in Birmingham, Mobile, and Tuskegee admitted their first black students.” White flight began immediately.
Robert Chambliss, who would be one of the suspects in the church bombing, reportedly told his niece:
“Just wait until Sunday morning and they’ll beg us to let them segregate.”
Which brings us to that Sunday morning, September 15th.
Since its construction in 1911, the church had served as the centerpiece of the city’s African American community, functioning as a meeting place, social center, and lecture hall. Because of its size, location, and importance to the community, the church served as headquarters for civil rights mass meetings and rallies in the early 1960s.
Members of a Ku Klux Klan (KKK) splinter group had planted dynamite equipped with a delayed-trigger under the church steps. The resulting explosion killed four young girls who were in a basement lounge, standing near the window under the steps.
The FBI identified four primary suspects: Chambliss as well as Thomas Blanton, Bobby Frank Cherry and Herman Cash. Their organization was “considered one of the most violent groups in the South.” Today, they might be labeled domestic terrorists.
No charges were filed.
Cash died in 1994.
In 1971, Alabama Attorney General Bill Baxley, 29, reopened the case. Some witnesses who had been reluctant to talk in 1963 were willing to testify eight years later. Baxley successfully prosecuted Chambliss (“Dynamite Bob“) in 1977. Chambliss died while still a prisoner, in 1985.
Although governor Kay Ivey apologized to Sarah Collins in 2020, she has made no effort to obtain compensation for Collins. Collins contends that the state of Alabama is culpable due to the actions and words of former Governor Wallace.
Here we are, 59 years later.
Evidence is mounting that white nationalist groups who want to establish an all-white state played a significant role in the violent attack on the U.S. Capitol that left five dead and dozens wounded.
White Supremacists are again comfortable strutting across the Main Stage.