Forty Years Since the Unsolved Tylenol Murders

This article is about the unsolved Tylenol and copycat poisonings with cyanide in painkiller capsules. My involvement in the case was as an analytical chemist to develop rapid methods for analyses of the potentially millions of suspect products recalled from shelves of drugstores. The hope was that such chemical testing might give clues to investigators concerning the distribution of tainted products that could lead to an arrest.

It’s been 40 years since seven people died from cyanide poisoning from adulterated extra-strength Tylenol tablets. The victims had purchased bottles of Tylenol, on store shelves, in suburban Chicago. A completely ordinary thing to do. They were tragically unaware of tampering by an unknown attacker who had replaced the contents of the pills with cyanide [1]. It was a shocking incident that completely changed sales and production of pharmaceuticals. Today, we take for granted the safety of drugs and medicines because they’re produced in tamper-evident blister packs or sealed bottles. This was not the case before 1982.

Unfortunately, this incident attracted copycat attacks in the years that followed. It was after such a copycat attack in 1984, this time on a different brand of painkillers in Westchester County, NY, that I became involved. I was at Indiana University, Department of Chemistry, Bloomington IN and I had become friends with my office-mate, now Professor Robert Lodder (at the University of Kentucky, College of Pharmacy). Rob was working on combining Near-infrared Spectroscopy with intelligent algorithms, using statistics and mathematics, for an enhanced interpretation of the data.

Seemingly out-of-the blue, Rob asked me about sampling devices for intact-capsules for near-infrared spectroscopy (NIRS). I was able to get a technical diagram and specifications sketched out and booked into the machine workshop within a day, with a shiny polished aluminium sampling device being returned to me a few days later. The major advantage of this device was that, provided it worked, represented a non-invasive analytical technique. Fortunately, it did work, so analysts didn’t need to open the capsule to find out what was inside. You could do so rapidly so the technology fit the requirements for examining individual capsules from millions recalled from drugstore shelves. Alternately, the analytical technique would apply to a pharmaceutical production line.

The sampling attachment led to a patent: Sample Holders or Reflectors for Intact Capsules and Tablets and Liquid Microcells for Use in Near-infrared Reflectance Spectrophotometers [2]. This device won an R&D100 award as one of the top 100 new products for 1985 by Research and Development Magazine.

With the sampling attachment in hand, I got to work in preparing the samples by placing varying amounts of sodium or potassium cyanide into various brands and types of painkiller. Despite the macabre nature of the study, we often laughed because of the black humor inherent in what we were doing. During a mid-point in this study, we both went out to Pofolks restaurant (Bloomington IN) with our then partners. That evening, we all laughed until our sides were sore. Anyone overhearing our conversion would have considered us to be escaped lunatics, or worse. Fortunately, no-one seemed to eavesdrop that night, or if they did, they didn’t report it to the police. I’m also happy to say that I’m married 36-years to my girlfriend on that night.

I must be one of very few individuals worldwide to have filled medicinal capsules with cyanide for a legitimate scientific purpose. I have never revealed some details, thinking that these details might be important to a police investigation. Filling capsules with cyanide was a messy process since the cyanide salts absorbed water vapour from the atmosphere. You needed to weigh, make NIRS measurements rapidly, and then store the samples in a desiccator. The jell material of the capsule became discolored otherwise. Overall, the work was 6-8 weeks from conception to the first draft of the work. I don’t think I ever worked so fast or hard, or laughed so much. We published the results in Analytical Chemistry [3].

Of all the people I’ve worked with, only Rob Lodder would have called his statistical algorithm the quantile BEAST for bootstrap error adjusted single-sample technique. It was his way of stamping the work with his unique personality. I can attest, because I was there, that he spent barely 30 min. coming up with that BEAST acronym. It was hard to keep up with him. Put simply, the BEAST takes a training set of NIRS data for known untainted capsules of painkiller. A hypercylinder is used to encompass the spectral spread of untainted capsules. If NIRS then measures an unknown capsule and the spectral data is more than a statistically significant (3σ) distance from the hypercylinder, we suspect the unknown capsule of being tainted with a possibly dangerous foreign substance.


Initially, the intent of our research was to develop a rapid method for investigators to work through millions of recalled products in order to help track down the murderer or murderers. For the 1982 Tylenol case, the US-FDA (Food and Drug Administration) tested 2 million capsules for evidence of tampering. Unfortunately, the research and development time from laboratory to scientific paper to field usage made, as it often does, this impracticable. The NIRS technology that we worked on some 40 years ago has become a small gear in a very large suite of platforms for quality control and assurance in pharmaceutical manufacturing that has allowed our modern society to have confidence in the security, safety and efficacy of modern drugs and medicines.

Written with StackEdit.


[1] R. A. Vargas, Tylenol murders: daughter tells of toll of unsolved killings, 40 years on, The Guardian, Oct. 02, 2022. Accessed: Oct. 23, 2022. [Online]. Available:

[2] R. A. Lodder, G. M. Hieftje, and M. Selby, Sample holders or reflectors for intact capsules and tablets and for liquid microcells for use in near-infrared reflectance spectrophotometers, US4882493A, Nov. 21, 1989 Accessed: Oct. 24, 2022. [Online]. Available:

[3] R. A. Lodder, Mark. Selby, and G. M. Hieftje, Detection of capsule tampering by near-infrared reflectance analysis, Anal. Chem., vol. 59, no. 15, pp. 1921-1930, Aug. 1987, doi: 10.1021/ac00142a008.

Australia Day and the “Too Difficult Basket” — A Proposal

For too long, we Australians have allowed an unsightly festering sore to blight the celebration of our nationhood. The day we Australians currently choose to celebrate as Australia Day has become known as “Invasion Day”. With good reason as well since the first settlers dispossessed the indigenous peoples of their land. Then disease carried by those settlers virtually wiped out the Gadigul people that lived there.

Skin in Both Sides of the Game

I believed myself a multi-generational, middle class, white Australian of British roots. Much like many of my fellow Australians when I was growing up in the Sutherland Shire in the ’60s and ’70s. I accepted and welcomed Australia Day on the 26th of January because it was the last holiday before the start of school or university.

Based upon a family history completed by my late Aunt I had believed that I had an indigenous great grandfather. Based upon this information, and because my Aunt’s family research had been reliable in every other way, I started identifying myself as being of indigenous heritage.

But this not true as I found out when I received the results of an AncestryDNA(R) on 25th Feb. 2022 as shown below. Turns out my original assumption that I was white European was true as evidenced by the DNA, However, the experience of identifying as indigenous has been valuable in seeing the world in a very different way – at least for a while.

My AncestryDNA estimate of heritage.
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My Experience with Responsive Graphics for Science Articles

In this article, I ask the question.

What if you wanted to be a modern day Don Quixote and self-publish research direct to the internet with WordPress rather than through a science journal?

I’ll attempt an answer based upon my own journey in section 2 of this article. First of all, you need some basic infrastructure for publishing suitable figures within WordPress. So I’ll spend some time addressing that issue. For publishing on the internet, you need responsive graphics. There is an overlap between interactive graphics (as discussed below)) and responsive graphics.

But the important difference, as I see it, is that responsive graphics should invite the reader to respond to and participate in the story that you’re trying to tell with the graphic element As described later in this article, the scientific literature is often author-centric. Most researchers would be blithely unaware of the importance of responsive web graphics because they publish their most important work in journals.

The charting plugin that I have been using is wpDataTables from TMS plugins provides for publishing data tables and charts from data sources including databases and Excel spreadsheets. In all 31 different types of charts are offered, though many charts have a business focus. Responsive charts for self-published science remains an immature area of focus for technology providers. This is why the review that follows is important.

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Covid-19 Data: Exponential Growth Confirmed

If you’ve been following The Dossier you’ll know that I’ve been collecting data on the Covid-19 omicron outbreak that we are in the midst of. I’ve made observations that confirm that omicron causes milder symptoms than other forms of Covid-19. But the less severe nature of omicron is offset, at least in part, by omicron being highly transmissible. Even though on average omicron causes less severe symptoms, there is always a percentage of individuals that show more severe symptoms than the average.

This percentage, though small, can easily represent a large number of people presenting to hospitals and requiring treatment in ICU’s across the country.

Indeed, I’ve shown in my article: Further Steep Increases in Covid-19 Cases, observations that there are increased hospitalisations already occurring in NSW as well as a worrying uptick in hospitalisations and deaths in other States and Territories. Given these factors, quantitatively determining the transmissibility of the omicron variant is critical to the management of the current outbreak.

In this article, we’ll attempt to do just that using the Covid-19 data presented in the chart below which shows case numbers for Australian States and Territories over the month ending Friday 7th January. As you can see from this chart, case numbers are showing rapid growth but is that growth exponential?


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Meanwhile Over in New Zealand …

Australia is now firmly in the grip of the omicron outbreak with accelerating cases in all states and territories except WA as shown in the chart below. The evidence of omicron‘s impact on people’s lives is being seen in the long lines for testing, people becoming frustrated at waiting or being turned away because of early closures of centres over the holidays. People that have been able to get tested have had to wait days for their results to be processed. Others have thought to find rapid antigen testing (RAT) kits only to find that they are difficult or impossible to procure. Many, especially families, are finding that the cost of RAT kits are prohibitive (at $150 plus each). In summary, omicron has become highly disruptive given Government demands for testing compliance but fortunately, the illness itself isn’t as severe as the delta variant from reports so far.

It’s hard to estimate the true number of omicron cases versus delta because the distinction requires genomic sequencing which takes a week or two for results to become known. However, it’s thought that around 80% of cases are omicron in Australia at the moment, with omicron becoming the dominant variant within another week or so..


Meanwhile, over in New Zealand …

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Further Steep Increases in Covid-19 Cases

The charts below show the number of cases, hospitalisations and deaths from Covid-19, respectively. The data are but shown by State and Territory over the month of Dec 2021.

A feature of the Covid-19 data is the accelerating case numbers, as can be seen from comparing the charts shown in The Dossier over the Christmas – New Year period. In the chart immediately below, cases for NSW have almost doubled in one day to 21,151. Cases for all other States and Territories have increased to record levels as well, except for WA.


More charts after the jump.

Continue reading “Further Steep Increases in Covid-19 Cases”

Could Omicron’s “Sting in the Tail” Threaten Children?

Today Covid-19 cases were at record levels in all Australian States and Territories except for WA. For NSW, 11201 new cases were recorded today, demonstrating that the apparent levelling cases at around 6000, over the past few days, were an artefact of reduced collections and processing of results over the Christmas period. Indeed, there were likely more Covid-19 circulating over the holiday period than revealed by the published health data (especially in NSW).


Ever since the omicron variant started infecting students and young adults in Gauteng Province in South Africa, it has seemed to be too good to be true: a variant that is much more transmissible (so that it replaces the more dangerous delta variant) but of itself, produces mostly mild symptoms with fewer hospitalisations. Bur omicron is still Covid-19; it hasn’t magically transformed itself into some kind of more friendly disease.

Is this the sting in the tail of omicron?

Continue reading “Could Omicron’s “Sting in the Tail” Threaten Children?”

Covid-19 Cases

Record numbers of Covid-19 cases in Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the ACT today. A Levelling of cases in NSW for the 2nd day in a row It’s still a holiday in Australia so cases numbers may be limited by testing centres and opening hours.

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What Happens After Omicron?

The sharp increase noted on Christmas Eve have stabilised somewhat in most States and Territories in Australia over the Christmas weekend though the increase observed increase on Boxing Day was a record for NSW since the pandemic began. The chart below shows the case numbers for Australia over the last month by State or Territory. Although most States showed modest increases these data may have been affected by long lines and more limited collections over the Christmas period. Indeed, many people have reported being turned away from getting tested at all.

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