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The Toxic Touch—Cutaneous Poisoning in Classics and Shakespeare

Kimberly F. Faldetta, BS1; Scott A. Norton, MD, MPH, MSc2
[+] Author Affiliations
1National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland
2Children’s National Medical Center, Washington, DC
JAMA Dermatol. 2016;152(7):797. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2015.5477.
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While most ill-fated poisoning victims meet their ends through toxic ingestion, some are poisoned via a more insidious route: contact with the skin. Throughout mythology, literature, and history, lore of such poisonings have enthralled audiences but also instilled fear in enemies and terror in children.

Perhaps the most notorious examples of transdermal poisoning come from Greek mythology. For example, the centaur Nessus assaults Hercules’ wife, Deianeira, as she crosses a river. In retribution, Hercules shoots Nessus with a poisoned arrow. As Nessus exsanguinates, he deceives Deianeira by telling her that his blood works as a love potion and persuades her to collect it for later use. Years later, Deianeira, worried that Hercules’ love for her is waning, soaks his lion-skin cloak in Nessus’s blood. Tragically, the arrow’s poison, still present in the blood, exerts its effects on Hercules. His skin burns with an agony so great that he throws himself on a funeral pyre to find escape through death (Figure). The “Shirt of Nessus” theme appears repeatedly in folklore, often signifying fate’s inescapable march. This motif appears in another Greek myth, when Glauce, bride of Jason of the Argonauts, dies after she dons a robe that jealous Medea (Jason’s first wife) had soaked in poison and presented as a wedding gift.

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Death of Hercules by Jean-Baptiste Deshays (1762). Oil on canvas. 66.1 × 50.9 cm. Image courtesy of Aberystwyth University School of Art Gallery & Museum, Aberystwyth, Wales. Bequest of Sir John Williams, 1926. Accession No. OP40.
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