Postgrad Med J 85:34-37 doi:10.1136/pgmj.2008.074922
  • History of medicine

What killed Socrates? Toxicological considerations and questions

  1. A D Dayan
  1. Professor A D Dayan, 21 Heathgate, London NW11 7AP, UK; a.dayan{at}
  • Received 11 September 2008
  • Accepted 8 November 2008


The death of Socrates in 399 BCE, as reported by Plato in the Phaedo, is usually attributed to poisoning with common hemlock. His progressive centripetal paralysis is characteristic of that poison. Socrates is said to have had a prominent loss of sensation extending centrally from his legs, which is not a feature of hemlock poisoning, and he seems not to have had the unpleasant taste or common gastrointestinal effects of that poison. It is suggested that Plato gave a modified account of the death of Socrates for political and other reasons by describing a more “noble” death.


  • Competing interests: None declared.