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3.9 out of 5 stars7
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on November 9, 2007
I found this book almost impossible to put down. In six chapters, the author, a molecular biologist, describes various instances in human history in which some sort of poisoning occurred. Some of these poisonings were purely accidental while others were deliberate, but they all involved the interactions between the human body and the various toxins that can cause it harm. Indeed, one can wonder how the human race has survived for so long in view of all the dangerous substances that can be innocently ingested. The many incidents described span millennia - the latest one having occurred only a couple of years ago. For each case, the author has included the relevant historical information, the aftermath and current understanding of what happened. I found the writing style to be particularly outstanding: it is simple, clear, engaging, authoritative, friendly and quite witty in many places (in fact, on a couple of instances, I found myself laughing out loud). Although this gripping masterpiece can be enjoyed by anyone, it may be particularly relished by history, true crime and science buffs alike.
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on December 4, 2011
Since this book has already gotten three five-star reviews, I'll put on my nasty hat and provide an alternative view. I agree that the book is a page-turner, and that's why I give it three stars. But its coverage of food poisoning through history is spotty and the author seems unwilling to really dig into the facts. What really bothers me about the book are its numerous petty errors. Spelling and grammar errors keep popping up. I'm not a snob; I can figure out what he meant to say. But all those mistakes leave me wondering about things that I didn't catch. Has the book misled me with some badly-phrased sentence?

On page 68 the author tells us that Sparta attacked Athens in 431 BCE, starting the Peloponnesian War, which lasted 27 years. On page 69 he further informs us that Thucydides wrote a history of the war -- in 431 BCE! Sure, it's just a dumb mistake, but when an author gets sloppy like that, I wonder, where else has he been sloppy?

We normally consider food poisoning to be something that arises when food in some way is tainted by bacteria or fungi. Mr. Satin expands the definition somewhat in addressing cases such as Typhoid Mary, or the adulteration of food or the inclusion of poisonous chemicals. That's OK with me -- but why didn't he bring in some of the other interesting cases of people dying from food that was deliberately poisoned? The history of Rome and Renaissance Italy bristles with cases of poisoning, but he doesn't give these incidents much attention. The reasons for including some incidents and excluding other similar events seems too arbitrary to suggest anything other than an opportunistic approach to the research. Instead of poring over the historical record, he seems to have grabbed at whatever was readily available. And why is there no mention of food poisoning in Asia other than in modern times? I refuse to believe that China never suffered mass poisonings, or poisoning assassinations, during its long history, and I refuse to believe that none of these occurrences ever made it into the history books.

He devotes a goodly amount of space to modern times, regaling us with 'true crime' stories of people who ended up poisoning lots of people by cutting some corners in safety or hygiene. Again, I get the feeling that these stories are included mostly because they were easy to find. They don't tell us anything about the impact of food poisoning on history.

I was especially disappointed by the thin coverage of developments to counter food poisoning. I know that the Romans had food inspectors monitoring the grain coming in from Egypt -- why no discussion of these measures, or any of the other measures taken through history? I don't recall seeing any mention of the German regulations about 500 years ago regarding the proper brewing of beer. Societies have been aware of the dangers of food poisoning for millennia -- why so little discussion of these countermeasures?

Hence my three-star rating. The book is good in some ways, but it's like a piece of meat with a few odd-colored spots on it: probably fine, but those spots are enough to undermine my confidence in its reliability.
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on November 3, 2007
DEATH IN THE POT: THE IMPACT OF FOOD POISONING ON HISTORY is an intriguing college-level survey of how food poisoning has affected history, whether the poisoning was intentional or unintentional. From an early 5th century Athens plague probably caused by contaminated cereals which led to their defeat in the Peloponnesian War to efforts to make modern food safer, this is a fine history packed with footnoted references and perfect for both college-level history and health collections alike.
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on September 12, 2011
This should be categorized as a diet book because after you finish reading it you will not, I repeat NOT, feel like eating for quite some time. This was a terrifically breezy read, lots of fun and eye opening information. Not a single dull page to be found.
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on November 25, 2013
What a disappointment. Many of the flaws in this book have already been pointed out like the lack of accurate historical data and the omission of some truly significant historical events which, if it hadn't been for tainted food, would have changed the course of Western history. (No mention of the tainted food carried aboard the Spanish Armada, for instance.)
This is definitely not the quality of writing I've come to expect from authors like David Howarth or Bernard Bailyn. At times, the author repeats himself so often, I almost wondered if this book was meant for the junior high school level. This is pseudo-history with, most unfortunately, plenty of the author's personal speculations thrown in. He speculates at one point that though explorers failed to find the Northwest Passage, perhaps they soon will because of global warming. <sigh> Really? His opinions are intrusive and unnecessary since they have nothing to do with the topic at hand. I didn't read this for his opinions, I read history for facts and, if speculation is necessary for clarification, it should be preceded by "what scientists/researchers believe is..." and not "I think that...". Good thing Satin didn't quit his day job.
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on February 6, 2013
I have gotten hooked on History of food books. This book was more a history of poison than of any specific events. it was very enjoyable, just not exactly what I was hoping for. A great read, though.
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on January 20, 2013
This is a great little book on a topic not covered in most history books, and not told as compellingly in most clinical books on food poisoning. Hard to put down, I read it in one go and thoroughly enjoyed it.
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