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St. Anthony’s Fire, the Salem Witch Trials and the Beatles

The ergot fungus, responsible for a number of cases of food poisoning throughout history, also contains compounds responsible for "quickening childbirth" and causing some pretty trippy hallucinations.

Gaston of Valloire’s son was afflicted with a violent burning pain in his swollen limbs. There were no doctors the nobleman could to turn to in 1095, but a nearby church had acquired relics of St. Anthony, the third century religious hermit who is regarded as the father of monasticism. Anthony led an ascetic life and through prayer successfully fought the devil’s attempts to lead him astray by afflicting him with boredom, laziness, and phantoms of women. When Gaston’s son, tormented by disease, touched a relic in the church, he was miraculously cured. At least so the story goes.

Gaston was so appreciative that he founded the “Order of St. Anthony” with the purpose of caring for those suffering from the disease that had stricken his son. The ailment came to be known as “St. Anthony’s fire,” a reflection of the intense burning pain suffered by the victims. The condition was not rare. In the 10th century, some 60,000 people in the Aquitane region of southern France died from “holy fire,” another term for the affliction. Outbreaks continued to occur throughout the Middle Ages with muscle spasms, convulsions and hallucinations also entering the picture. It wasn’t until the 17th century that the disease was linked with the consumption of rye tainted with a fungus that infected the grain when the growing season had been particularly cold and damp. The fungus grew on the plant in the shape of a cock’s spur, called “argot” in old French, from which the term “ergotism” for the malady is derived.

A 1976 paper in the journal Science raised the possibility that the 1692 Salem witch trials, a dark moment in American history that resulted in the execution of twenty-one innocent people, were linked to ergotism. The author argued that symptoms of “bewitchment,” particularly convulsions, hallucinations and delirium as reported in the trial records are consistent with ergotism. Furthermore, rye was a large part of the diet in Salem, and it seems the weather during the growing season that year was conducive to infection with the fungus. However, some scholars have pointed out that if rye were contaminated, a larger segment of the population should have been affected and a more likely explanation for the shameful event is mass hysteria.

Even after the cause of ergotism had been identified, rye contaminated with the fungus Claviceps purpurea still found its way into people’s diets either through ignorance or callous disregard of its presence by growers or bakers. In 1928, in Manchester, 200 people were sickened by eating rye bread and in 1951 in the French town of Saint-Esprit a similar number contracted ergot poisoning after eating contaminated goods from a local baker. Some became delirious and developed suicidal thoughts, while others had excruciating burning sensations that culminated in in their limbs being infected with gangrene.

The ergot fungus produces a large number of “ergot alkaloids” that have a variety of physiological effects. Some cause such a dramatic constriction of blood vessels that the flow of blood to limbs is completely cut off causing the burning and gangrene formation. Other ergot compounds cause hallucinations by affecting receptors for serotonin or dopamine, important neurotransmitters. Of course, one person’s poison is another’s drug. In 1808, American physician John Stearns reported that ergot preparations can induce uterine contractions and recommended their use for “quickening childbirth.” A century later, Arthur Stoll isolated ergotamine tartrate which proved to be useful in the treatment of throbbing headaches by narrowing widened blood vessels in the head. Today, ergot alkaloids are used to treat some forms of headache and reduce blood loss associated with childbirth.

As is commonly the case, when a compound is found to have a medicinal effect, chemists go to work to improve it by synthesizing molecules with similar structures. This is just what Dr. Albert Hofmann was doing in 1938 at the Sandoz company in Switzerland. In attempts to find drugs to induce uterine contractions and ease childbirth, he was working with compounds that had been isolated from ergot, one of which was lysergic acid. He combined this with various amines but was unsuccessful in producing a drug with the desired effect. However, one day, during the crystallization and purification of lysergic acid diethylamide tartrate, or “LSD,” he accidentally ingested some of the substance.

Hofmann later described the remarkable experience: "I sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated condition…I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors." He tried a higher dose and quickly realized that there was a great downside to LSD. "A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind and soul…I was seized by a dreadful fear of going insane."

No medical use for LSD has been found, but the drug has been illicitly produced and abused. "Tangerine trees and marmalade skies" are to be found in the lyrics of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, one of the Beatles' greatest hits. Some have claimed that those words describe an “LSD trip” and that the first letters of Lucy, Sky and Diamonds refer to LSD with which the Fab Four undoubtedly had some experience. They did not appear to have had any negative effects but with the wrong dosage, not uncommon because LSD is active in microgram quantities, “bad trips” can occur. These are characterized by panic, confusion, intense anxiety and disturbing hallucinations. Some victims have visions of being able to fly but upon jumping out of a window quickly discover that they can’t.


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