Monday, November 15, 2010

Medical Mondays: Ergot and St. Anthony's Fire


Today I'm going to tackle a fascinating thing called ergot.

The first time I heard about ergot was as a teen reading the book Firebrand, by Marion Zimmer Bradley. In the story, there is a scene when Cassandra and her aunt, Penthesilia, travel through a village with a mysterious illness causing birth defects.

A strange fungus (ergot) growing on the rye turns out to be the culprit.

Ergot can grow most commonly on rye, but occasionally on wheat and barley.

When consumed, it causes a disorder called St. Anthony's Fire, named so because the monks of the Hospital of St. Anthony in the middle ages became a center for treating the malady.

St. Anthony's Fire is also called "ergotism" and the symptoms include a burning sensation in the limbs, delirium, spasm, nausea and vomiting, hallucinations, mania or psychosis. Some can even have their fingers or toes die from gangrene, as ergot is a potent vasoconstrictor (a chemical that makes the blood vessels tighten and restrict blood flow).

Ergot poisoning has been blamed for cases of "bewitchment" in the past.

The "Great Fear" of France in 1789 at the start of the French Revolution has been theorized to be caused by ergot poisoning.

Ergot was first used in 1938 to make LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide).

It is thought that historically, ergot may have been used in cult-like rituals for its hallucinogenic properties. It's been found in the stomachs of the "bog-men" from the Iron age. Some believe that the poem Beowulf (translation: Barley-wolf, related to the German translation for ergot: "tooth of the wolf") is somehow related to such a cult-related ritual.

Considering this colorful history, ergot is curiously found in modern medicine. Ergot derivatives are used to treat migraine headaches (Cafergot). It is also used to treat Parkinson's Disease (Pergolide, Cabergoline).

Please keep in mind this post is for writing purposes only and is not to be construed as medical advice (see sidebar disclaimer).

If you've got a fictional medical question, let me know! Post below or email me at
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Also, don't forget to check out Mental Health Mondays at Laura's Blog!

48 comments:

Samantha Vérant said...

I really found this article interesting. And inspiring. And I learned something new today. Lydia, you're three for three and that rocks in my book!

Matthew Rush said...

This is fascinating! But I thought ergot was used to make actual LSD, not just a substance like it. I guess you learn something everyday, thanks Lydia!

Vicki Rocho said...

I'd never heard of ergot before...so educational! thanks!

Lydia Kang said...

Thanks Matthew, I fixed it.
:)

salarsenッ said...

I loved this!! I've been looking for an herb or some ingredient to spice my next story up. Thank you for this. Obviously, I'll do a tad more research and change it up a bit. I love these Mondays! Don't know how you do it all.

B.E. Sanderson said...

Cool. I didn't know that. Growing up in farm country, I'd heard of ergot, but I never knew what could happen if you ingest it. :shudder:

Victoria Dixon said...

I first heard of Ergot thanks to a pbs t.v. show called "Secrets of the Dead." It's a historical forensics show where they study the probable causes of historical events. In this case, the Salem witch trials. It was probably begun by Ergot poisoning and possibly continued through malice.

Paul S said...

I'm another one who had never heard of ergot.
Thanks for enlightening me Lydia.

Lenny Lee* said...

hi miss lydia! i love how you do this monday med stuff cause im learning lots from it. i didnt ever hear of ergot so now if i hear it somewhere im gonna know just what it is.
...hugs from lenny

Roland D. Yeomans said...

Oh, no! Ergot is what they served us in high school at lunch for a vegetable on Mondays. No wonder the school week always went downhill from there!

I really enjoyed this post. Thanks for the inspiration for use in future novels.

Lynn said...

How interesting! It sounds terrible but can still be used in modern medicine to help disease. I think of grammar that way sometimes!

Deb Salisbury said...

Fascinating! I'd heard of ergot, but never got around to looking it up. Thanks!

Erica Mitchell-Spickard said...

Ah, how I have missed you Lydia and these Medical Mondays. They are probably my favorite most anticipated blog post each week (of course along with the others but these are so friggin awesome)
Woah! That stuff is potent! I had no idea it was Barley Wolf...it takes some of the punch out of the title until you realize the history behind it.
Cool stuff! Hope you've been well :)

LTM said...

um... so is it like a good thing or a bad thing? I'm just sayin b/c I thought folks liked taking LSD, but what you described sounds like a very bad trip... :D

and ergot might have caused the French Revolution??? And here Marie Antoinette gets all the blame! lol! I'd prefer cake, too~ ;p

Carol Kilgore said...

Wow. I just love Medical Mondays. This is totally new to me. Thanks, Lydia.

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

Wow,this was truly fascinating. I had heard that rye could develop a fungus but had no idea of its historical connections.
But does the fungus get cooked out when rye gets made into bread?

Angela Felsted said...

I think there was a special on PBS once about Ergot poisoning and the Salem Witch trials. All theory, of course, but it sounded pretty convincing.

Bossy Betty said...

Very cool! I love info like this!

Heather said...

This is a fascinating post! I love working great history like this into my fiction. It gives it a little something extra and helps ground it in reality a bit.

Jennee said...

So interesting. I had no idea it had anything to do with LSD. You make me love Mondays!

Old Kitty said...

Wow!! Ergot used for either good or evil!!! And LSD! Amazing!!!

I must dig out my Firebrand - I remember enjoying reading it but it was such a long time ago..!!!! Yikes!!!

Take care
x

Caroline Starr Rose said...

I read a book once that claimed the children who followed the Pied Piper of Hamlin were suffering from ergot. Interesting!

Krispy said...

Oh, this is a very cool one. It's like how there's speculation that part of the hysteria of the Salem Witch Trials may have been caused by a fungus in the food. Not sure if it was ergot or not. Thanks!

Bathwater said...

I think this showed up on an episode of House, the woman was seeing her dead mother.

Jai Joshi said...

Oh Oh Oh! I actually know something about this!

*Jai hops in her seat, waving her hand in the air, desperate to get teachers attention*

I watched a documentary ages ago that suggested that many of the witch burnings back in medieval times could be linked to ergot on the grains. The weather conditions of those periods were such that it made the perfect environment for ergot to grow. And that's why there was increased paranoia and people saw witches and devilry everywhere.

Haha! I love it when I can contribute something. Great post, Lydia!

Jai

Holly Ruggiero said...

Fascinating. A little trip though history and fungus is always fun.

Christine Fonseca said...

So dang interesting!

Elana Johnson said...

Wow, cool! Thanks for sharing!

Paul C said...

Like mushrooms one has to be careful what kinds of seeds to eat. Most interesting.

Colene Murphy said...

Incredible! I had no idea! Thanks for the facts. It kinda freaks me out but is still soooo interesting. Weird combo.

MT said...

I love your medical monday posts, Lydia. I always learn something unique (to me). Today, I learned there is a difference between ergo and ergot. Are they both pronounced the same?

BlackLOG said...

I must admit I thought the “Great Fear of France” was that the rest of the world would realise that their food and wine is not actually as good as they keep telling everyone that it is….

ciaraknight said...

I've never heard of ergot. I love this kind of information though. Great post!

Susan Fields said...

How interesting, Lydia! I've heard of ergot before, but didn't know much about it. Sounds like something that could make for a great plot twist!

notesfromnadir said...

Lydia,
Thanks so much for this fascinating information. I didn't know that Beowulf meant Barleywolf.

How frightening that must've been to people back then when they encountered ergot poisoned rye.

The Red Angel said...

Hi Lydia! :) Your Medical Mondays are always sooo random but so cool haha. I've heard of ergot before but I didn't know all these neat facts! Thanks for sharing.

~TRA

http://xtheredangelx.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

Wow, rather cool post. How can I find that RSS?

Whitny Meetington
spy shop

Melissa said...

I learned about St. Anthony's Fire in my history class a couple of weeks ago. It was great to get a more in depth look at Ergot though (we only vaguely skimmed it).

This was fascinating as always!

Stephen Tremp said...

Well, I;ve learned more about ergot that I thought I ever would. Just goes to show you learn something new every day. Thanks for the post and helping me become a little bit smarter!

Rachna Chhabria said...

Great Post, Lydia. Was not very familiar with ergot, so all this stuff has made me more knowledgeable about it.

Kelly said...

I had never even heard of ergot before!! Thanks for enlightening me! I love these medical Mondays!

Munk Davis said...

Very awesome.

Jonene Ficklin said...

Wow, Lydia, that's fascinating. Were you already on the path to becoming a doctor when you first read about it in Firebrand?

Lydia Kang said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lydia Kang said...

Hey Jonene! I read it in college when I was neck-deep in the middle of my pre-med courses.
:)

Lynda Young said...

I've not heard of ergot before. Fascinating post.

Shellie said...

I'm loving these medical tidbits. Thanks for posting them.

The Words Crafter said...

Wow, that's fascinating! If you could take away the tragic elements involved in it, it would be interesting to travel back in time and see some of the stuff you talk about. And, how did the people of old learn about plants and herbs and their medicinal qualities? Is there such a thing as forensic medicine? It would fascinate me!

 
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