by iampunha | 6/24/2008 08:00:00 AM
Most histories of this drug begin in 1938 and with Albert Hofmann.

They chronicle the people who fell prey to its effects, the memorable results of its first serious use by Hofmann, and maybe how the CIA investigated using it for interrogations.

Were this diary about the drug in question, I would probably devote the rest of my writing to discussing the value of informed consent in scientific experiments.

Instead, I'm going to step inside the Wayback Machine and talk about the 14th century. Buckle up, because we're going for a ride.

For Henry Ward Beecher, who raised his children to speak their minds and write to move countries.

[A] strange delusion arose in Germany, which took possession of the minds of men, and, in spite of the divinity of our nature, hurried away body and soul into the magic circle of hellish superstition. It was a convulsion which in the most extraordinary manner infuriated the human frame, and excited the astonishment of contemporaries for more than two centuries, since which time it has never reappeared. It was called the dance of St. John or of St. Vitus, on account of the Bacchantic leaps by which it was characterised, and which gave to those affected, whilst performing their wild dance, and screaming and foaming with fury, all the appearance of persons possessed. It did not remain confined to particular localities, but was propagated by the sight of the sufferers, like a demoniacal epidemic, over the whole of Germany and the neighbouring countries to the north-west, which were already prepared for its reception by the prevailing opinions of the time.

-Sect. 1--St. John's Dance

Ergot is a fungus blight that forms hallucinogenic drugs in bread. Its victims can appear bewitched when they're actually stoned.

Ergot thrives in a cold winter followed by a wet spring. The victims of ergot might suffer paranoia and hallucinations, twitches and spasms, cardiovascular trouble, and stillborn children. Ergot also seriously weakens the immune system.

Now Mary Matossian tells a story about rye ergot that reaches far beyond Salem. She studies seven centuries of demographics, weather, literature, and crop records from Europe and America.

Down through history, Matossian argues, drops in population have followed diets heavy in rye bread and weather that favors ergot. During the huge depopulation in the early years of the Black Death, right after 1347, conditions were ideal for ergot.

-No. 137: Rye Ergot and Witches

The early 1930s brought a new era in ergot research, beginning with the determination of the chemical structure of the main chemically active agents, the ergot alkaloids. Finally, W. A. Jacobs and L.C. Craig of the Rockefeller Institute of New York succeeded in isolating and characterizing the nucleus common to all ergot alkaloids. They named it lysergic acid.


Lysergic acid, of course, is the main ingredient in LSD. And on June 24, 1374, the items in quotations 2 and 3 combined, or so the argument (fairly solid, I think) goes, for the item in quotation 1.

Note that lysergic acid is not by itself LSD. It is an ingredient in LSD. So it is not accurate to say that sufferers of St. John's Dance, or any of the people involved in witch trials, were on acid. It is, in fact, factually incorrect to say they were on LSD, as that substance, as far as anyone knows, didn't exist until Hofmann made it exist.

But ergot absolutely causes hallucinations of the type attributed to LSD:

Toxicologists now know that eating ergot-contaminated food can lead to a convulsive disorder characterized by violent muscle spasms, vomiting, delusions, hallucinations, crawling sensations on the skin, and a host of other symptoms[.]

So for all practical purposes, those folks were tripping before tripping existed.

Incidentally, according to at least one person, it ain't just in bread. And it wasn't just in Europe in the 14th century:

Psychedelic mushrooms, the classic hallucinogenic fungus, derive their mind-altering properties from the psilocybin and psilocin they produce naturally. One historic example of this phenomenon, scientists now believe, is the madness that prevailed in the late 1600s in Salem, Mass., where ergot, a hallucinogenic fungus, infected the rye crops that went into rye bread. Ergot contains lysergic acid, a key compound of the hallucinogenic drug LSD. This tiny fungus and its wild effects on the rye-bread-eating women may have led to the Salem witch trials.

In a slightly related bit of amusement, one of the many pitfalls of global warming is that ergot is more likely to occur, overall. While it will disappear or become less frequent where it currently appears, the development of newly viable arable land will mean that people who have not had to deal significantly with ergot will have to. Will they be able to? Your guess is as good as mine. But if I were you, I wouldn't assume bread prices are going to remain relatively static for the next few years.