Outbreak of Ergotism (857 A.D.) and Holy Fire Epidemic (1039)

In 857 A. D. the first serious outbreak of ergotism was recorded in the Rhine Valley. It struck the peasants and killed thousands of people. It was during this time it was called Holy Fire because of the buring sensations at the extremities from gangrenous ergotism. The cause of Holy Fire was unknown but the symptoms experienced by the people was documented. The people suffered from swollen blisters, rotting flesh, and loss of limbs.

While ergotism still occured over the following years it did bring some good with it. In 1039 during another epidemic of Holy Fire, a man named Gaston de la Valloire who was wealthy and felt pity for the victims built a hospital near Vienne. It was dedicated to the relief of suffers and to the memory of St. Anthony. Holy Fire was also called St. Anthony's Fire from this point on. Eventually over 370 hospitals would be built in memory of St. Anthony to care for the victims of Holy Fire. The cause of ergotism was still unknown.

Picture to the left is St. Anthony--Patron Saint of Ergotism (from Plant Diseases: Their Biology and Social Impact)

Thullier and Discoveries in Ergotism (1670)

In 1670, a French physician by the name of Dr. Thuillier began to make some important observations concerning Holy Fire. He determined that ergotism was not an infectious disease. He noted that it occurred in the rural areas of the poor rather than in the highly populated, unsanitary urban areas. Also he noted that in some cases only one member of a family would be ill or that an entire family suffering from Holy Fire lived next to completely well families. Children and feeble appeared to be the most susceptible and nursing mothers mights see the symptoms in their babies. However the strangest observation he made was that wealth appeared to determine one susceptibility to ergotism. He became determined in finding the cause for ergotism. He noted that the country environment nor drinking water (city and country folks used the same source) could not be the source. He determined the source to be food. He noted that when he visited the sick in rural areas meals consisted of either pork or beans and always rye bread. City folks tended to eat rich beef, poultry, truffles and white bread.

Thuillier noticed in a field of rye the ergot, or cockspurs (picture at right) as the farmers called them, growing in place of grain on some heads of rye. Farmers considered these cockspurs to be harmless. Thuillier knew that alchemist often used the ergots in their potions to hasten childbirth. So small doses seemed to be okay, but what about the large doses found in the heavy loaf of rye bread always found on the tables. The peasants were eating the ergot rye flour in the form of bread. Thuillier also noticed that in years that the cockspurs filled the rye heads that Holy Fire raged through the country side and hundreds died. Finally proof. But as always it was not enough and the farmers did not believe him.

Salem Witch Trials (1692)alem Witch Trials (1692)

With the cause of Holy Fire unknown many theories concerning the Salem Witch trials of 1692 have been developed. It has been theorized that the Salem Witch trials occurred due because of ergotism. Some have suggested that the victims of these trials were actually suffering from ergotism. According to historian Mary Matossian in her book Poisons of the Past, she noted symptoms of the people to be sensations of prickling or ants crawling on the skin, distortions of the face, paralysis, hallucinations, convulsive seizures, and dementia. All these symptoms were consistent with those suffering from ergotism. (Want to learn more about the Salem Witch Trials check out these links.........Salem Witch Museum and Salem Witch Trials--Chronology) Picture at left is the June 10, 1692 hanging of Bridgette Bishop from Famous American Trials, Salem Witchcraft Trials 1692

Peter The Great (1722)

Ergotism had other affects on history as well. Peter the Great, in 1722, attempted to make Russia the greatest nation of the world by taking Constantinople from the Turks. He wanted to drive the Turks back to Asia. So he led his Cossacks into the great marshalling area at Astrkhan on the delta of the Volga. The Cossack calvary like all armies of this time lived off the land. So when the serfs of the Volga delta came in with their carts loaded with rye (hay and grains) for the horses and rye flour for the men, the cossacks were allowed to eat. But then one night in August, the first horse went down with blind staggers. Later at dawn, the shriek of a man in agony tore through the camp. By noon a hundred horses were down, and by evening of the next day scores of soldiers were in agony. It was Holy Fire. That Autum 20,000 people died, and Russia's military power weakened. So again the question arises as to what is ergotsim? What causes it to occur? Since the people did not understand the cause of ergotism, they had more difficulty finding a cure for ergotism. (Information from: Famine on the wind; man's battle against plant disease, by G. L. Carefoot and E. R. Sprott.)

Tulanse Proves Thuilliers Work to be Right (1853)

Finally in 1853, Louis Rene Tulanse finally proved what Thuillier had figured out two hundred years earlier. He studied growing rye and the flowers and performed numerous experiments. He discovered that the rye was not the problem, but rather a fungal parasite was the problem. The fungus, Claviceps purpurea, attacks grains and grasses. Claviceps means "club-headed" and purpurea means purple, which describes the ergots or cockspurs. The ergots were actually the overwintering structure of the fungus. These ergots are not to be eaten by human or animals because they contain poisonous alkaloids. This species of fungus was the original source of LSD. The alkaloids when ingested cause many health problems. Symptoms often exhibited by the afflicted are nervous dysfunction (convulsions), trembling and shaking, wryneck (fixed twisting of the neck), muscle spasms, confusion, delusion, hallucinations, and loss of extremities. Animals exhibit similar symptoms. Today the alkaloids discovered in the ergot are being used to treat ailments. Ergotamine is used to treat headaches, especially migraines. Ergonovine is used to control hemorrhage following childbirth.

Ergotism, the Saga Continues.... (20th Century)

There have been occasions in the 20th century where outbreaks occur. In 1926-27, Russian had 10,000 reported cases, England reported 200 cases in 1927, and the last reported cases was 1951 in Provence, France. Dr. Jean Vieu, of Pont-St.-Esprit in Provence, France, visited a patient exhibited symptoms similar to acute appendicitis. However the patient suffered from symptoms other than the intense pain in the lower abdomen, the patient also had a lowgrade fever, cold fingertips, and hallucinations. Three days later the hospitals were full and 70 houses had been turned into emergency wards. The fist victim of this strange illness that the doctors had determined to be food poisoning died in agonizing convulsions. Terror spread through the city as stories spread about an eleven year old attempted to strangle his mother. The doctors persuaded the mayor to institute a house-to-house search for anything that might yield a clue as to the cause. The investigation uncovered that all the people had eaten bread from the same bakery. Samples of the bread from the homes and from the bakery were sent to Marseillis for analysis. Twenty poisonous alkaloids were found in the bread, and the source of these alkaloids was a fungus that produces ergot in rye. It would a few weeks later before the entire mystery was figured out. A miller 300 kilometers away, had ground the flour. An unscrupulous farmer had sold his ergot infected rye to a baker who had it ground into flour. All three men knew the rye was poisonous but they did not want to pay the twenty francs per kilo sales tax. The result was that over 200 hundred suffered from severe ergotism, 32 went insane, and 4 died.


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