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 with 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.


[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.

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.

Continue reading “My Experience with Responsive Graphics for Science Articles”

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?


Continue reading “Covid-19 Data: Exponential Growth Confirmed”

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?”

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.

The Physics of the Netflix “Dark” Series – Part 3

Representation of wormhole travel through space-time, the first path is the long way around the space-time surface, the second path is through the wormhole Source: Shutterstock by edobric

Exclusive Content

This article is available exclusively on It is a unique review that combines factual physics with a review of the sci-fi fictional TV series “Dark“. Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3 of this series are available.

In the Physics of “Dark” – Part 3 the concept of closed time-like curves CTCs will be further explained by considering how physicists since Einstein have understood causality — the nature of cause and effect.

Carter-Penrose diagrams will be introduced and used to highlight how CTCs, time travel and wormholes are consistent with our current understanding of general relativity.

The work reported here contains original insights into how time travel through wormholes for can be represented in spacetime diagrams.

Read more here:

Time Loops in the Netflix “Dark” Series – Part 2

Roller coaster Ride. Photo by Stephen Hateley on Unsplash

Exclusive Content

This article is available exclusively on It is a unique review that combines factual physics with a review of the sci-fi fictional TV series “Dark“. Part 1 of this series is available.

The concept of circular time has arisen in the TV culture of Doctor Who and Star Trek as discussed in the free bonus material below.

In “Dark” the concept of circular time is more advanced than in the examples discussed in the Bonus Material and resemble the physics concept of closed time-like curves CTCs where the future communicates with the past and the past with the future. . CTCs are one of the weirdest concepts in all of physics .– and you thought that dark matter and dark energy were pretty weird.

indeed, the late, great, Stephen Hawking offered the chronology protection conjecture which basically states that CTCs are just too weird. Therefore the universe must have a way of protecting itself from them. Read more here:

Continue reading “Time Loops in the Netflix “Dark” Series – Part 2”

Kamala, the Inflection Point and the Geek vs Freak Election?

This is not an article about politics but it is about the Democratic National Convention (D20) held in the last week. Specifically, it’s about one phrase in the speech by Vice Presidential candidate, Kamala Harris (see video). The phrase is “inflection point” that was also echoed the following day in the speech by Presidential candidate Joe Biden. It seems that the Democratic Party are hoping that this phrase will be a rallying call for them come Election Day in November.

“We’re at an inflection point. The constant chaos leaves us adrift. The incompetence makes us feel afraid.  The callousness makes us feel alone. It’s a lot. And here’s the thing: We can do better and deserve so much more.[1].

Continue reading “Kamala, the Inflection Point and the Geek vs Freak Election?”

Time Travel in “Dark”: Embrace the Paradox

Promotional poster for the Netflix series “Dark” [1].

German Netflix series simply called “Dark” has been around since June 2017 (seasons 1 and 2) . The new season 3 has only recently become available. Watch out for the first scene in the first episode: a gruesome suicide by hanging which you might want to hit fast forward through. Very dark indeed. If you do fast forward don’t miss the short sequence in which the victim’s mother grabs the suicide note before anyone else can read it. The victim here is Michael Kahnwald and his mother is Ines. This whole scene, and the names of the characters, are pivotal to the whole story. We’ll return to the intrigue, setup by the first scene, after discussing some general comments about the time travel genre. Take the opportunity for a pause because “Dark” is a bumpy, head-spinning journey. (Edit: to be found in the continuation in Part 2).

Continue reading “Time Travel in “Dark”: Embrace the Paradox”

Herd Immunity and COVID-19

By Snapwire from Pexels (free to use)

This morning I was watching TV, the Today show. as Karl Stefanovic and Allison Langdon were discussing the concept of “herd immunity” which had been considered by the UK Government early in the COVID-19 pandemic. Their casual conversion considered whether it might be a good idea to deliberately infect younger Australians with the coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) [1] whilst isolating and protecting older and more susceptible members of the community. This apparently casual conversation raised alarms for me as I’ll explain below (see after the jump). The infographic video that Allie used to explain the concept of “herd immunity,” seemingly made a compelling argument for it. Fortunately, they brought in sensible expert advice in the form of Dr Sanjaya Senanayake an Infectious Diseases physician and Associate Professor from the Medical School at the Australian National University (ANU) (see the YouTube video below).

Continue reading “Herd Immunity and COVID-19”

Exit mobile version