St. Anthony's Fire

Image from photo insert, LSD: My Problem Child by Albert Hofmann, M. D. (2009 edition): Woodcut of St. Anthony, the patron saint of ergotism victims. Ergot poisoning was originally known as St. Anthony's Fire.

Ergot, more than any other drug, has a fascinating history, in the course of which its role and meaning have been reversed: once dreaded as a poison, in the course of time it has become a rich storehouse of valuable remedies. Ergot first appeared on the stage of history in the early Middle Ages, as the cause of outbreaks of mass poisonings affecting thousands of people at a time. The illness, whose connection with ergot was for a long time obscure, appeared in two characteristic forms, one gangrenous (ergotismus gangraenosus) and the other convulsive (ergotismus convulsivus). Popular names for ergotism- such as "mal des ardents," "ignis sacer," "heiliges Feuer," or "St. Anthony's fire"- refer to the gangrenous form of the disease. The patron saint of ergotism victims was St. Anthony, and it was primarily the Order of St. Anthony that treated these patients.
Until recent times, epidemic-like outbreaks of ergot poisoning have been recorded in most European countries, including certain areas of Russia. With progress in agriculture, and since the realization, in the seventeenth century, that ergot-containing bread was the cause, the frequency and extent of ergotism epidemics diminished considerably. The last great epidemic occurred in certain areas of southern Russia in the years 1926- 27. [The mass poisoning in the southern French city of POnt-St. Esprit in the year 1951, which many writers have attributed to ergot-containing bread, actually had nothing to do with ergotism. It rather involved poisoning by an organic mercury compound that was utilized for disinfecting seed.]

- pp. 39, LSD: My Problem Child by Albert Hofmann, Ph. D (2009 edition)

St. Anthony, "ignis sacer", heiliges feuer, mal des ardents
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