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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Friday 3rd February 2012

Esther Hegt, of ‘Ragwort, myths and facts’ sent me a pile of reading, a couple of days ago, and I confess I’ve only glanced at it, so far. Much of it is about illnesses that can afflict horses but get largely ignored by owners and some of the health products offered for treating illness in horses, including some that horses are physically incapable of suffering. Esther’s point is that the attitude toward Jacobaea vulgaris, common ragwort, is not based on logic.

I did make a start on this online version of a slide presentation created by Dr Elio Spinello of California State University. Dr Spinello starts by arguing that Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) is definitely not ‘traditional’ and may not even be ‘Chinese’. A quick hunt around suggests that Dr. Spinello is a rationalist who offers evidence for anything he says but I shall want to look at this matter more closely before commenting further.

But what struck me was that I’ve been reading a lot, recently, about bogus claims of all sorts and how one should react to them. Whether it is the latest silliness about ricin from Ricinus communis, castor oil plant, as noted by another clearly argued piece from ‘Dick Destiny’ or the latest lies from Kathy Gyngell, claiming to be quoting  ‘[t]he last Cochrane Review on the matter’ when, as pointed out by this excellent Transform Drug Policy Foundation (TDPF) blog post there have been two further Cochrane reviews since the one Kathy claims as ‘the last’.

What struck me about that was the comment by Steve Rolles that ‘The contributions of Kathy and others is certainly a valid part of the debate’. That chimed with a piece I’d read about the attacks made on a stage entertainer who claimed to have true supernatural powers. The thrust of that piece was that it is arrogant and paternalistic to criticise those who are willing to part with money for the products and services of such people.

I could see the point, and agree that in the online era it is easy for people to only add offence to the debate rather than making useful contributions. I don’t agree, however, that there should be a laissez faire attitude allowing people to purvey whatever nonsense they can without drawing attention to it.

Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane

Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane

I’m not going to get further into that debate, today, but it reminded me of two of my favourite stories of the activities of charlatans down the ages. Though both of them appear, in part, elsewhere on this site, I think they were worthy of retelling.

The first concerns Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane. The seed heads on a mature plant look rather like a piece of jawbone complete with a row of teeth. Under the principle of the Doctrine of Signatures, the plant was used in dentistry from ancient times. The hallucinogenic, soporific effects of the plant would have made people forget the toothache.

I’m sure there were various ways to administer henbane to treat toothache but the one I like is the technique said to have been used in Anglo-Saxon England. In those days, it was believed that worms in the teeth caused toothache. Anglo-Saxon folklore talks of a great battle with a giant worm which resulted in the worm being cut into nine pieces and the nine pieces becoming the nine ‘flying venoms’ which were believed to be the cause of all pain and illness. One variety of these flying worms resided in painful teeth.

This belief led to charlatan medicine men administering henbane seeds in a bowl of hot water held close under the chin. Through sleight of hand they would introduce small pieces of lute string and claim that these were the dead worms thus demonstrating the efficacy of their 'magic' potion. My research has not been able to establish whether sufferers realised they had been duped once the effects of the plant wore off or assumed they had not received enough of the ‘cure’ and happily parted with more cash.

Mandragora officinarum, mandrake

Mandragora officinarum, mandrake

The second story relates to Mandragora officinarum, mandrake and I gave this a pretty full outing on 26th November. Here’s an edited version of that entry;

Bryonia dioica [has] the name ‘English mandrake’ because it was the habit of the charlatans of the past to force the bryony to produce roots that looked like mandrake so that they could exploit the alleged aphrodisiac effects of the Mandragora.

‘I say ‘alleged’ because the reputation of mandrake was based entirely on the appearance of the root. Traditionally, the root is supposed to resemble a man and, under the Doctrine of Signatures, that means it will be good for men.

‘Of course, the effect of Bryonia dioica is not ‘alleged’; it is very real. Often described as a dangerous purgative I wonder what the reaction of a duped user would be to find that the effect he was expecting was replaced by something rather less pleasant.’

I’ve repeated all of that because I want to revisit my conclusion on that occasion. I finished by writing;

‘Had there been a 13th century Trade Descriptions Act, I’m sure the dealers would say in their defence that they had only promised that anyone eating the root they were selling would be up all night.’

I think I may have misjudged the reaction of the duped purchasers of white bryony. Given the persistence of belief in all manner of nonscience, I now wonder if people were inclined to assume that their outbreak of gastrointestinal disorder was an unfortunate coincidence preventing them from benefiting from the power imparted by the mandrake.

The continuing success of ‘snake oil salesmen’ of all sorts rather suggests that it takes a lot to break down people’s beliefs no matter how bizarre and irrational they are.