Helan Varughese & Anastasia Staravoitava

Book: A is for Arsenic

Exhibit: Art Work

Featured Work

Written Work

The Artists: Helan Varughese & Anastasia Staravoitava

Title of Piece : Poison Chemistry

We both are first year students at the Technological University Dublin studying Chemical Sciences with Medical chemistry.

This compound which is commonly known as the “King of poisons” got its name from being used over the past number of centuries to despose of relatives, officials, and even rulers. Arsenic was seen as a convenient secret weapon for poisoners because it is colourless and odourless which makes it difficult to detect if added to food.

We created this piece as an artistic illustration dedicated to demonstrating arsenic’s reputation as a lethal substance and providing a visual depiction of arsenic compounds.

The poisonous properties of arsenic have been known for centuries however, the pure elemental form of arsenic itself is far less toxic in comparison to its deadly compounds such as arsenic trioxide(As2O3). This toxicity is caused by their destruction of the body’s essential chemical processes.

Arsenic compounds are mainly found in two forms known as arsenates and arsenites. Arsenates are similar in structure to phosphates which perform many vital biological roles within the body. In the body, the transfer of phosphate from a chemical known as ATP to other molecules increases their chemical activity, allowing them to react even in the mildest conditions. Arsenate compounds are chemically less active and so can be very toxic as they replace phosphate in ATP. This results in the body’s chemical reactions slowing down or in extreme cases even stopping.

In comparison, Arsenites such as arsenic trioxide, form extremely strong bonds with the sulphur atoms of essential proteins known as enzymes. As a result the shape of the enzyme is warped and they cease to function. Since enzymes are responsible for carrying out the majority of chemical reactions in the body, when they become denatured, they are no longer active and cannot carry out essential reactions in the body. 


‘A is for Arsenic’ is a book that celebrates the use of science by the world’s most renowned mystery writer in fourteen classic mystery novels. We chose this book to create our art piece due to the detail it provides on how each of the chemicals kills when they interact with the body, real-life cases that may have inspired Agatha Christie, and an analysis of how the substance was used in Agatha Christie’s novels. 

There were many poisons and their associated stories to pick from. I suggested concentrating on this compound, in particular, due to the deadly charm of this infamous element and its chemical characteristics.

While the poisonous properties of arsenic have been known to the public for a very long time, I had not had the opportunity to fully understand what truly makes it lethal. In the very first chapter Kathryn Harkup shows us how this compound has been used throughout history as a potent poison to kill off kings and emperors and enable rich inheritances, mostly by disrupting certain atomic or cellular chemical activities throughout the body.

As a science student, the lethality of this compound, even in amounts as small as 0.006g/m2, sparked great interest in me. That is why we decided the heading of the drawing would be ‘A is for Arsenic, a powerful poison’.


For me, what inspired the creation of the exhibit is the amount of detail the author uses to express the lethality of each of the 14 poisons. It provided me with an insight into the variety of effects caused by these very different chemicals, ranging from metals to plant alkaloids. However, the one that stood out most to me was Arsenic. The biochemistry behind how the compound works was presented in such a way that it piqued my interest. We wanted to use our knowledge about this infamous element to create a poster that shows how lethal the element is in a fun yet informative way.

Other Sources of Information Used:

‘King of Poisons’ recounts the fascinating history of arsenic, Available from:

A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie, Available from:
[Accessed March 2021].

J.Frith, Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health,2013, 21(4), 11-17


Art Work

Helan and Anastasia Infographic