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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Thursday 19th January 2012

On Monday afternoon, I watched the live stream of a lecture being given by Professor David Nutt to The University of Edinburgh Division of Psychiatry. I don’t know if it is going to be available to watch but, if it is, it should be accessible from this page of the university’s site. Because I’m in the Scottish Borders where very little is fast and certainly not the broadband, the stream was frequently disrupted though I think I got the gist.

Actually, I wasn’t too worried by that because, although next week’s talk in Kent has a different title ‘Science and non-science in drug policy: how politics compounds harm’ I’m sure they’ll be some overlap of material and, if I had enjoyed a perfect stream from Edinburgh I might be wishing I hadn't made non-refundable travel bookings.

One thing Prof. Nutt said, that sparked this blog, was that he didn’t know how LSD came to have the reputation for making people think they could fly when he’d never come across an actual case. I’ve found with a number of things about poisonous plants that things that ‘everybody knows’ can arise from a single (misunderstood) incident so I wondered if the 1951 poisoning incident at Pont St Esprit might have started the association between LSD and flying.

You’ll find a lengthy discussion of the conflicting theories about the causes of the outbreak of poisoning that affected around 300 people and was traced to one particular batch of bread produced by a local baker elsewhere on this site. On that page, I give examples of the symptoms experienced by some of the victims and include ‘a desire to fly’.

I went back to John G Fuller’s 1968 book ‘The Day of St. Anthony’s Fire’ to look for specific references to flying and found three. Fuller says that, quite early on in the outbreak, a M. Delacquis was cycling home for lunch and experienced visual hallucinations of various sorts and ‘seemed to float in time and space’. He also ‘felt he was borne in on the wings of a mythical golden chariot'.

Delacquis was one of the first to exhibit mental disturbance with most people suffering physical symptoms of poisoning but, later on, there was a sudden surge of victims exhibiting forms of mania. So great was the number of sufferers and so intense the mania that the authorities were nearly overwhelmed in trying to deal with all the victims who would not respond to reason.

Amongst these victims, Fuller writes in some detail about a former aviator, Joseph Puche, who climbed onto a second floor window ledge and cried ‘I’m an airplane and I can fly’. Unfortunately, M. Puche disproved his own claim by breaking both legs when he landed on the pavement below after launching himself into the air. Although he only gives one other named victim, a Mme Rieu who suddenly left her sick husband’s bedside and threw herself out of the window, Fuller says that one of the doctors trying to deal with the epidemic felt that ‘a dominating symptom seemed to be commonplace: The desire to jump from the windows.’

Fuller gives a number of other examples of the effects of the intoxication, including visions of wild animals or large spiders, compulsions to obsessively repeat the same action and the desperate desire to visit a particular person but it is the desire to fly that lingers in the mind. Perhaps, that is because the wish to be able to fly is almost universal in our species so we latch onto stories that seem to offer that experience.

But, why might references to flying in the Pont St Esprit victims be the cause of LSD’s reputation in this area? Well, at least one of the ergot alkaloids is chemically similar to LSD and Albert Hofmann, widely described as the ‘father of LSD’ largely because his book about the chemical is called ‘LSD – My Problem Child’, made a visit to Pont St Esprit when ergot was suspected as the cause.

In that book, Hofmann does say that casualties have occurred when people under the influence of LSD have jumped out of a window ‘in the belief that they were able to fly’ but he goes on to say that such casualties are not as common as ‘sensationally exaggerated [reports] by the mass media’ would lead you to think.

Of course, the notion that an LSD trip could lead to the user plunging to their death due to a mistaken belief in the ability to fly might be seen as a way to discourage its use and, thus, takes its place alongside many of the other pieces of folklore whose intention is to keep children away from harm.