Mathieu Orfila

Mathieu Joseph Bonaventure Orfila.
Mathieu Joseph Bonaventure Orfila.

Mathieu Joseph Bonaventure Orfila (April 24, 1787 - March 12, 1853) was a French toxicologist and chemist.



Orfila was born a Spaniard at Mahon in Minorca as the son of an island merchants. Following in his father's footsteps, he looked first to the sea for a profession; but a voyage at the age of fifteen to Sardinia, Sicily and Egypt did not prove satisfactory.

He next took to medicine, which he studied at the universities of Valencia and Barcelona with such success that the local authorities of the latter city made him a grant to enable him to follow his studies at Madrid and Paris, preparatory to appointing him professor. He had scarcely settled for that purpose in Paris when the outbreak of the Spanish war, in 1807, threatened destruction to his prospects. But he had the good fortune to find a patron in the chemist Louis Nicolas Vauquelin, who claimed him as his pupil, guaranteed his conduct, and saved him from expulsion from Paris.

Four years afterwards he graduated, and immediately became a private lecturer on chemistry in the French capital. In 1819 he was appointed professor of medical jurisprudence, and four years later he sticceeded Vauquelin as professor of chemistry in the faculty of medicine at Paris. In 1830 he was nominated dean of that faculty, a high medical honor in France.

Under the Orleans dynasty, honors were lavishly showered upon him; he became successively member of the council of education of France, member of the general council of the department of the Seine, and commander of the Legion of Honor. But by the establishment of the Republic of 1848 he was held in less favor, and chagrin at the treatment he experienced at the hands of the governments which succeeded that of Louis Philippe is supposed to have shortened his life. He died, after a short illness, in Paris on the 12th of March 1853.

Role in Forensic Toxicology

If there is reason to believe that a murder or attempted murder may have been committed using poison, a forensic toxologist is often brought in to examine pieces of evidence such as corpses and food items for poison content. In Orfila's time the primary type of poison in use was arsenic, but there were no reliable ways of testing for its presence. Orfila created new techniques and refined existing techniques in his first treatise, Trait des poisons, greatly enhancing their accuracy.

In 1840, Marie LaFarge was tried for the murder of her husband using arsenic. Mysteriously, although arsenic was available to the killer and was found in the food, none could be found in the body. Orfila was asked by the court to investigate. He discovered that the test used, the Marsh Test, had been performed incorrectly, and that there was in fact arsenic in the body, allowing LaFarge to be found guilty.


Orfila's chief publications are:

  • Trait des poisons or Toxicologie generate (1813)
  • Elements de chimie medicate (1817)
  • Leons de médecine legate (1823)
  • Trait des exhumations juridiques (1830)
  • Recherches sur lempoisonnement par lacide arsenieux (1841)

He also wrote many valuable papers, chiefly on subjects connected with medical jurisprudence.

His fame rests mainly on the firstnamed work, published when he was only in his twenty-seventh year. It is a vast mine of experimental observation on the symptoms of poisoning of all kinds, on the appearances which poisons leave in the dead body, on their physiological action, and on the means of detecting them. Few branches of science, so important on their bearings on every-day life and so difficult of investigation, can be said to have been created and raised at once to a state of high advancement by the labours of a single man.

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