Strong medicine

This week, I worked on a list of all the substances that can be identified in the medicine chests at the National Maritime Museum. I am hoping that the drugs found in the chests will tell something more about when, how and by whom they were used. All in all, there are approximately seventy different kinds of materia medica on the list now. Some are very familiar, like aspirin, olive oil, powdered ginger and magnesium. Others have been banned as medicines for some time, and for good reason: mercury pills, laudanum and opium tincture for example. And some are downright creepy at first sight, like ergot of rye.

Ergot of rye is a disease in rye plats, caused by the fungus Claviceps pupurea. The fungi appear in the ear of the rye plant as dark brownish, oblong bodies. It used to be so common in rye, that until the 1850s it was believed to be a part of the rye plant. However, quite a while before that, people already knew that ergot was far from innocent. Already in the 1670s, Thuillier, a French physician discovered that ergot of rye was the most likely cause of a disease now known as ergotism.


From the Middle Ages, there are sources describing a common but mysterious disease mostly referred to as ‘holy fire’ or ‘St. Anthony’s fire.’ Symptoms ranged from hallucinations to burning skin and the sensation that insects were wriggling under the skin. Sometimes gangrene of the extremities developed because of constricted blood vessels, and victims could lose hands and feet or their lives. Women with the disease frequently miscarried, and that was in fact the reason that ergot of rye ended up in nineteenth-century medicine chests.


Thullier established the link between ergot of rye and holy fire from the fact that outbreaks mainly occurred in poor rural areas where rye bread was eaten with almost every meal; a food that was not on the tables of rich city dwellers, who ate white bread.  When this became clear, midwives and physicians started to use extracts from ergot of rye in small amounts to induce childbirth in difficult labour, and most likely women tried it as an abortive in the case of an unwanted pregnancy.

That explains why London chemist Richard Reece listed ‘The Ergot of Rye’ in his 1836 catalogue of drugs under the Selection of Medicines for Domestic Use, as a treatment for diseases of the womb and in difficult labour. However, I found the drug in a medicine chest supposedly used by Admiral John Lort Stokes (1812-1885) during his days in the Royal Navy. Now why would a Navy Admiral want bring a drug that seems to have been so particularly gendered? Was it just part of a ready-made medicine chest?

Even if that was the case, it seems unlikely that he would not have taken it and replaced it with some other medicine more useful under the circumstances, as personal space on Navy ships was extremely limited. Another explanation may be that by the time Stokes brought the chest aboard with him, ergot of rye had become a cure for other affections as well – after all, it is still grown today in laboratories to distil particular toxins from it for medicinal purposes. Yet another small mystery to solve!


Images from:

Henry G. Greenish,  A Text Book Of Materia Medica, Being An Account Of The More Important Crude Drugs Of Vegetable And Animal Origin.  J. & A. Churchill, 1920

Other sources:

G. Hudler, Magical and Mischievous Molds. Princeton University Press, 2000

M.K. Matossian, Poisons of the Past: Molds, Epidemics and History. Yale University Press, 1998

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