Solving and Creating Mysteries

John Commins, for HealthLeaders Media , February 13, 2012
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This article appears in the February 2012 issue of HealthLeaders magazine.

Pathologists are drawn to a mystery. They are born problem solvers, and that's what attracts them to this distinct corner of medicine. "We are the physicians who figure things out," says Barbarajean Magnani, PhD, MD, FCAP, pathologist in chief in the department of pathology and laboratory medicine at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

Magnani is a renowned expert in clinical chemistry and toxicology, one of the editors of several textbooks on the subjects, and the creative force behind and the author of Lily Robinson and the Art of Secret Poisoning. The fictional series, published serially in the Journal of Clinical Chemistry and as a book, provides a novel approach for learning toxicology, as taught by a crafty assassin who commits murder using poisons that mimic natural causes.

On the genesis of Lily Robinson: The stories are a fictional way to convey how a poisoning could occur using a particular toxin. The readers would have to figure out how Lily did it and what toxins she used. They would write in to the Journal. People would write in from all over, and it was amazing how clever some of them were coming up with things. And the following issue Lily would say how she did it. Then there would be a mini review of the poison. It was a way to teach toxicology to chemists, pathologists, and people in medicine who wanted to learn.

On the fun of fiction: Lily Robinson was a way I could teach toxicology and make it fun. You engage people because they are looking for the mystery and getting to know a character and they are learning about toxins. It's a fun way to combine the disciplines.

On the rewards of authorship: Some people got really involved with the character. Halfway through the series there was a spot where Lily looked like she was in jeopardy and people wrote in and asked if she was all right. People get really involved. I really enjoy the feedback I get from colleagues and the guessing part of coming up with a mystery. If you are a puzzle solver and you like mysteries, then you'd understand why I am a pathologist and why I would write a book like this.

This article appears in the February 2012 issue of HealthLeaders magazine.

John Commins is a senior editor with HealthLeaders Media.

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