Monday, July 12, 2010

Medical Mondays: La Bella Donna


Today's post is on a chemical called atropine. It has a rich pharmacological history, and just yesterday I recommended it to a writer as a treatment for pesticide poisoning. So here we go!

Atropine is a substance extracted from plants including Deadly Nightshade or Belladonna (Atropa Belladonna), Mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), and Jimsonweed (Datura stramonium). The name "atropine" derives from the the Greek fate Atropos, who cut the threads of fate. Atropa Bella Donna means "Do not betray a beautiful lady."

Remember Harry Potter's work with the deadly Mandrake plant? Those weird, ugly little baby-rooted things whose screams were deadly and whose juice was the antidote for the petrified victims of the Basilisk?

Well it turns out the Mandrake, or Mandragora is real.

(Image from Warner Bros, 2001)


The root structure is sometimes described as taking on a humanoid appearance, as in this botanical print. J. K. Rowling wasn't too far off the mark with her baby mandrakes!
The importance of mandrake and belladonna in human culture has been traced back to ancient Greece and in the Bible as well (Genesis). As early as 4th Century B.C., it was used as a sedative and before surgery. It was also thought to improve fertility.

These herbs have been used in pagan rituals, has been used in witchcraft texts from the 1800's, and still have an important usage in modern medicine today.

It was said that women in Renaissance Italy used Belladonna berries to dilate their pupils to make them look more alluring, hence the name "pretty lady" in translation.

Other effects of atropine include reducing secretion in salivary and sweat glands, increasing heart rate, and can treat the symptoms of poisoning by organophosphate compounds found in some pesticides and nerve gases like saran. These agents cause sweating, salivation, vomiting, diarrhea, and tearing.

Atropine is found on every "crash cart" in every hospital and ambulance today, as a treatment for a critically slow heart rate and asystole (flatline). Even today, these fascinating plants have left their mark.

In literature, these herbs are constantly popping up. Outside of Harry Potter, I remember these plants popping up in the Clan of the Cave Bear books, as well as Shakespeare, The Eragon series, John Steinbeck, and many, many other places...it's everywhere!

Please keep in mind this post is for writing purposes only and is not to be construed as medical advice!

If you've got a fictional medical question, let me know! Post below or email me at


All I ask in return is that you become a follower of my blog and post a link on your blog when I post. Easy peasy.

Also, don't forget to check out Mental Health Mondays at Laura's Blog!

52 comments:

Clara said...

Wow, Lydia that was great! I had no idea the Mandrak actually resembled a humanoid feature!

Thanks for sharing!I really love these mondays!

Piedmont Writer said...

Great post. I'll have to book mark it in case I need to poison someone. lol, in my books of course.

Liza said...

Perhaps this is what makes JK Rowling so successful as a writer...that so much of her imaginative creatures, games, cures, etc., are based on reality. Thank you for this Monday's lesson.

Vicki Rocho said...

I learned something again today! Cracks me up women would use this to make their eyes look bigger...I think a list of "beauty treatments" through the centuries would make a great book!

Zoe C. Courtman said...

I love these posts so much, because I learn stuff like this: "hence the name "pretty lady" in translation." Didn't know that! Cool!

Erica Mitchell-Spickard said...

Woot! I love Medical Mondays. Even if I am not trying to poison a character or need their blood type or have broken their ribs or or heat stroke or whatever it always makes me think, what would happen if I did this to my character.
I swear I have a question but I'm still on the fence if it's what I am going to do. Okay, well I will leave it. How is a catatonic person treated and how is catatonic different from a coma?
There ya go :) I hope you had a fantastic weekend!

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I learned about bella donna in my pharmacology class. Cool stuff. :D

Joanne said...

I agree with Liza above. To me, the best fiction is reality-based.

lbdiamond said...

Hi Lydia! *waves* Great post, as usual! Gives me something to look forward to on Mondays. ;)

Carol Kilgore said...

I always learn something on Medical Mondays. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge.

Mary said...

Well there's another great Medical Monday for the notebook.
Love these posts.

Giggles and Guns

Jen said...

Anything that has Harry Potter in it consider me there, lol. Thanks for teaching me something else knew. Sticking around here I'll be a genius by the end!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

I love the beautiful eye *wink* and the Harry Potter illustrations. I always learn something fascinating from your blog, and this is way cool and soooo helpful.

Talli Roland said...

Interesting because I have deadly nightshade in my novel!

Thanks Lydia!

Jessica Nelson said...

I've heard of this stuff before. Fascinating!

Jemi Fraser said...

Great information! Thanks a bunch :)

Elana Johnson said...

I *heart* you so hard right now. Great post!

Aubrie said...

Lots of interesting stuff in this post!

Jolene said...

Fascinating. There's a bunch of people out there with fun Monday stuff going on.

Theresa Milstein said...

When I saw the first picture, I thought this was going to be a post about my eye question.

That's so funny the Harry Potter mandrakes are related to something real. J.K. Rowling really did her homework when writing her books. I wonder how many research hours she logged?

Great Medical Monday post, as always.

Lydia Kang said...

Hi Erica! I can tackle your post next week, that's a good one!

Hey Theresa! I'm keeping your question on the back burner because I can't figure out what illustration to put with it! Yours will be coming soon too!

Danyelle said...

These posts are awesome, Lydia. Since I write fantasy, learning about natural herbs and plants has been very helpful. Thanks! *thinks mandrakes are cute*

Solvang Sherrie said...

LOVE these posts!

DEZMOND said...

yep, Shakespeare has mentioned mandrake abundantly in his plays. An interesting little plant if you ask me :)

Holly Ruggiero, Southpaw said...

I love herbal medicine and lore.

aspiring_x said...

anyone find it funny that it's supposed to increase fertility and knock people out at the same time? i'm just saying...

Melissa said...

I'm so in love with medical mondays it makes my head spin. Seriously.

I learn so much from you! Your a veritable well of knowledge and I wish I could use every medical monday in my books because they are all so fascinating.

j.m. neeb said...

Lydia, your Medical Mondays are always fascinating! I look forward to them because you never disappoint. :)

Abby said...

So cool! I never knew any of these things, though I have heard about mandrakes and deadly nightshade before.

Lydia Kang said...

I'm glad you guys are enjoying these!

Aspiring X, I just have to comment that it's also ironic that when using belladonna to dilate your eyes to look alluring, you also lose the ability to focus well. You know how you can't see after leaving the ophthalmologist office when you get your eyes dilated?

So it's like, "Hey, look how sexy my eyes are. Too bad I can't even see my own reflection cuz everything is so friggin' blurry." What if they attracted a man that looked like the swamp thing? They would have NO IDEA.

Not that the Renaissance ladies said "friggin'" but, whatever!

Alissa said...

I knew that about Mandrakes looking like people, I think from reading a book, but the other stuff was all new to me. Great information!

notesfromnadir said...

Yeah, I've read about a little about mandrake and the pictures make it look very pretty but I'll stay away from it!

Paul C said...

I enjoy reading about plants with historical and mythological allusions. Interesting post!

Lisa Gail Green said...

Your blog is always so full of fascinating info! I've always idolized J K Rowling as the "master" but now I have to elevate that to near-deity status...

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

Interesting stuff, as usual! I remember being terrified of touching deadly nightshade when I was a little girl (in the UK).

Susan Fields said...

Another great Medical Monday - thanks, Lydia! That's another thing I love about J.K. Rowling - that lady does her research! It's amazing how much stuff in those books seems like pure fantasy but is based on fact.

VR Barkowski said...

This is fascinating, Lydia. I adore medical Mondays. I always come away with half a dozen new ideas for plot twists.

I would love to learn more about Rohypnol, particularly the short and long term affects of the drug on memory.

Faith said...

Ahh... herbs & plants from ancient times always fascinates me. I believe I learned about this back in uni, but this was so fun to read & learn a few new things. Thanks for a great post!

Christina Lee said...

Well knock me over with a feather--they are REAL, huh?

Very cool!

Valerie Geary said...

Great information! *puts in special folder for later*

Heather said...

Thanks for the herbal lesson, this is excellent!

Rachna Chhabria said...

Hi Lydia... it was great to brush up on all these medicines. If I am not mistaken Bella donna is used in homeopathy medicines.

Phoenix said...

This is awesome. I just watched that Harry Potter movie the other day so now I feel like it's all tying in together!

I hope the next JK Rowling is one of your readers and gets some awesome medical (and slightly mystical) knowledge from you for their up and coming bestseller!

Ed Pilolla said...

i enjoy any scene where a character is poisoned, and his or her friends dash into the woods (which they are in or usually nearby) to find the root of a plant that is the antidote. the real-life herb treatment is fascinating. i like the witchcraft reference best. makes my imagination bubble:)

Jackee said...

So interesting! I never knew that much history or the shape/structure of the plant. We use atropine to dilate my son's eye (instead of patching), but I never made the connection to mandrake. So thank you! I love your medical Mondays. :o)

KarenG said...

Wow, thanks for this info! And I know a blogger who would LOVE to follow you if she doesn't already. I'm going to send her your link.

Culture Served Raw said...

Insightful post as always!! Great to take away these little pieces of information

Val

Mohamed Mughal said...

Neat post, Lydia. When I was in the Army, they issued us atropine injectors in case of chemical attacks.

Jai Joshi said...

I love learning about the medicinal values of plants. One thing that saddens me is that so many plants don't even have these values anymore because they've been bred and cross-bred so many times - not to mention genitically modified - that they no longer have the potency they used to.

Thanks for this post on Belladonna.

Jai

Walter Knight said...

Soldiers carry an atropine injection device to counter the affects of a nerve gas / agent attack.

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