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.

Conclusions

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.

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[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: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2022/oct/02/tylenol-murders-chicago-illinois-unsolved-1982

[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: https://patents.google.com/patent/US4882493A/en

[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.

Speculation About Game of Thrones Season 8

In my former life as an academic, I used to joke to my colleagues that Game of Thrones was essential reading as a standard operations manual for working in universities nowadays.

GOT as a manual for negotiating the world of research grants, where, figuratively, you either win the game or die and of navigating a path between the wheeling and dealing of the big-time professors, administrators, bean-counters, health and safety officers (hey, don’t underestimate their power). On many occasions, the internal and external politics between all of the players seemed to operate on a GOT-like scale. There were times I must admit that I felt no better than a denizen of the “Flea Bottom” in King’s Landing.

Given that internal politics in most organisations of more than a handful of people can feel a bit like GOT, from time-to-time, why not distract yourself with a little idle speculation about the upcoming Game of Thrones Season 8? I’m hoping to speculate on enough topics that I’ll be able to make a random hit and be able to say “I told you so!” The truth is that my speculation is unlikely to be any better than anyone else. But its fun isn’t it? [March 7: I’ve added new updates in notes at the end]

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The Dossier: Highlights 2018

When I started writing the Dossier at the end of July, I was still dealing with issues around job loss and finding a new direction. I wrote about some of this in the article: Job Loss and Sense of Purpose, getting that off my chest was a positive step forward for me. I’d like to thank Jo Stanley for her kind reply: my post was a response to a newspaper article that she had written about similar events in her own life.

I started to gain some sense of purpose which I wrote about with An Epiphany or Two, of Sorts which is primarily an appeal for online learning systems to be more personalised. The observation was that the area of online learning is dominated by institutionally-centralised learning management systems (LMSs) that suit a formal learning setting but aren’t necessarily well-suited to more personal and decentralised learning. In August requested support to get such a project off the ground This request is reproduced again below.


Support me in Developing a Device-centric Personal Learning System.

Develop and build the components of a personal learning system using Django for the back-end and Electron for multi-platform front-end support. Support is requested, in the first instance, for community-based proof of concept.

$25.00

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Job Loss and Sense of Purpose

I write this in response to an article in the Brisbane Times online today: “Losing my job helped me find a sense of purpose” by Jo Stanley. Having lost my job* in the last 18 months I can sympathize. Losing a long-term job or a breakup after a long-term relationship are two of the most dispiriting experiences that you are likely to go through. You lose an anchor in your life and the knock to your confidence can easily lead you into depression and a downward spiral – no matter how much you thought you were ready for it. Particularly, in my case where I had been working in the same university teaching-research position for 28 years. Loyalty is no longer an asset, indeed it can paint a target on your back, as many people will attest to. Universities are no longer an ivory tower (if they ever were) and are rapidly catching up to being as cutthroat a working environment as anywhere in the private sector.

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The Unfairness of Measuring Teaching Performance

I write this in response to an article in the Brisbane Times online today: “‘This woman is so old’: Insults hurled at academics spur survey rethink” by Henrietta Cook. This comment posted in anonymous student feedback to Sydney academic Dr. Teena Clerke. These surveys are used by universities to measure the quality of teaching in its programs.

There is no question that universities need to maintain quality teaching but there is a problem with teachers being subjected to abuse under any guise as pointed out in the cited article above. What’s more, such measures are increasingly being used to judge not only the quality of university teaching programs but also the performance of teachers and to help decide questions of whether a given academic should be re-hired, promoted or fired.

While most institutions try to take a balanced view of survey data, in regard to staff management, it potentially opens a pandora’s box of for abusive behavior, gender and racial discrimination, bullying and sexual harassment to be perpetrated by pernicious managers and supervisors (or even students against teachers). So we need assurances that the benefits of such schemes outweigh the potential risks for abuse, however isolated and infrequent such instances might be.

The recent book “The Tyranny of Metrics” by academic Jerry Muller (2018) handles these issues in a more comprehensive manner than I can do here. What I have seen over my 28 years in academia is that teaching evaluation started out as a survey consisting of 10, or so, questions plus room for comments. They were handled by teachers on a class-by-class basis and returned in a sealed envelope to the university by an appointed student.

Typically, the academic could select one or more of the survey questions from a suite of optional questions, in addition, to standardized questions. I illustrate this with my own SET (student evaluation of teaching) results from October 1998 and the Insight evaluation report from June 2015, from the same institution and from the same unit of teaching, Instrumental Analysis:

The evaluation instrument on the LHS above is for October 1998 and on the RHS for June 2015. Click on the thumbnail to enlarge the image.

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