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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Wednesday 30th May 2012

As the first anniversary of starting this blog moves closer, I’ve been thinking about what I’ve learned by writing it.

I’ll save a full review of what it has been all about for the actual anniversary because there were a number of reasons for doing it but the one about learning is worth looking at on its own.

I thought that if I wrote something each day about poisonous plants or psychoactive substances that would provide the focus for keeping me up to date and adding to my knowledge.

It is a concern, I wouldn’t put it as an obsession, of mine that information should be as accurate as possible and as up to date as possible. I think that comes from my student days at the beginning of the ‘70s. People who’ve read this website or heard me talk are surprised to find that I did a degree in metallurgy. I won’t relate how I got from there to here but metallurgy was my subject for a four year ‘thick sandwich’ B.Sc. course at the University of Surrey.

Our lecturer on iron and steel was approaching retirement and, for reasons that can only be guessed from this distance, hadn’t bothered to update his lecture notes for many years. Thus, he spent most of the time talking about the Bessemer steel-making process when, this being the final year and we all having spent part of our industrial years in steelworks, we knew that no-one used that process anymore and his claim that the principles were the same as the basic oxygen process that replaced it was thin at best.

Whether it was that experience that gave me this desire to keep up to date is uncertain but the desire itself is not in doubt. The trouble is I’m really pretty lazy so I need an incentive to get me working and just learning new stuff for the sake of it wasn’t enough of an incentive. Researching for this blog has proved to be useful.

Just yesterday, for example, I learned that there may be doubt over Dr. Buchanan’s remarriage to his first wife and that could change my understanding of his character and motive.

Most of what I’ve learned has come from reading both books and online material and I’ve realised, especially when it comes to the psychoactive substances, that there is a huge amount of new material being generated making it impossible, for me, to keep fully up to date. The best I can achieve is making a rapid assessment of what material is worth careful study, what to ignore and what to quickly scan and hope my recall will take me back to it if I find I want to know more about its topic.

But some of my learning comes from TV and radio and, just recently, even from children’s TV. I confess to being a complete ‘Horrible Histories’ groupie. If you’ve never heard of it, these programmes, now in the fourth series, present human history, from mankind’s earliest days to the Second World War, in a child friendly way. That is, there is quite a lot of focus about how the human race has dealt with its excrement throughout history and an historical event gets relayed by means of a song or rap.

There’s also quite a bit of time-switching; a TV news reporter will travel back to tell the story of some ancient battle in the language of modern coverage and people from history travel forward to apply their methods to present day situations. One example of the latter is a recurring sketch where someone goes to a dental surgery to find that the dentist is from some past era and tries to use his methods.

The most recent of these was an Egyptian dentist who began by suggesting the use of opium (from Papaver somniferum) to relieve the pain. The programme didn’t make a clear link between opium and heroin but, at least, it raised the question of changing attitudes to this narcotic.

Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane

Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane

But then, and this is where I learned something new, the dentist went on to explain that his treatments were aimed at killing the worms in the teeth that cause toothache. That surprised me because I thought the idea of worms being responsible for dental problems was an Anglo-Saxon invention. My reading had taught me that the Anglo-Saxons had a myth about the world being attacked by a giant worm which a hero had fought and cut into nine pieces. Those nine pieces took the form of ‘flying venoms’ and were credited with causing all the ills. Thus one of those venoms produced the worms in the teeth.

This leads to one of my favourite stories about charlatans claiming to be able to kill these worms by having their patient inhale the fumes of Hyoscyamus niger, black henbane, and producing pieces of lute string for the dead worms as proof of efficacy. I told that story more fully a few months ago.

But, if ‘Horrible Histories’ is correct, then the Anglo-Saxons weren’t the first to believe in worms as a source of toothache. The programme made no mention of the Egyptians using henbane as a cure so I don’t know if it was omitted by the programme makers or if the use of this plant comes after the Egyptians. That means doing more research to see if I can tie Hyoscyamus niger to toothache before Anglo-Saxon times.

Plato puts into Socrates’ mouth the words ‘As for me, all I know is that I know nothing’ and that thought often gets expressed as ‘the more I learn the less I know’. One thing I do know is; I know what that phrase means.

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