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Pontifications on Poison

Being some ramblings on events associated with poisonous plants.

Sunday 27th July 2014

There are stories about poisonous plants and psychoactive substances that I’ve never been able to confirm by finding a primary source. Was there really a woman whose leg fell off as she rode to hospital to have it amputated as a result of the gangrene caused by Claviceps purpurea, ergot fungus? Did a 19th century Swedish doctor die after eating leaves of Aconitum napellus, monkshood, to demonstrate that they were harmless? Did the German High Command actually think about giving its troops cocaine to sustain them during World War One?

I got a little closer to confirming that last thanks to coffee and the wonders of Twitter.

It began with a piece in the New York Times ‘How Coffee Fueled the Civil War’  an account of the importance of coffee to both sides in the American Civil War. From my point of view, I was interested in the examples of the problems caused when the troops could not get enough caffeine and the fact that at least one general ‘planned attacks based on when his men would be most caffeinated’.

Erythroxylum coca, cocaine

Erythroxylum coca, cocaine

I Tweeted about it and remarked that it resonated with me because of the cocaine story that I’d never been able to authenticate. And as a result of that Tim Gluckman sent me links to a number of German articles about drug use in war. The first  (original German, Google translation) is a general guide to cocaine that, in the introductory paragraph, states as fact that cocaine was used in WWI.

The second (German version, Google translation) is about drug use by the German forces in WWII. This says that the adrenalin of easy victory was replaced by caffeine and then a pill containing methamphetamine and, by 1945, a cocaine based tablet. It mentions that cocaine was used by fighter pilots during WWI.

It may be clutching at straws to conclude that the time it took before cocaine was considered for use in WWII might support the idea that it had been rejected in WWI.

The counter to that, however, comes in a forum post (German version, Google translation) about drug use in the 1920s in German society. It suggests that ‘drug addiction was rampant’ after the events of WWI but doesn’t say whether that was due to its use during the war or the despair of defeat in 1918.

Someone, I apologise to them, I can’t recall who, also pointed out that stimulant use continues in the armed forces with this 2012 abstract about modafinal being used  by helicopter pilots to sustain alertness.

Though none of these pieces absolutely confirms the story that there was a plan to give German troops cocaine to suppress appetite and stimulate activity before it was realised that it would be impossible to obtain sufficient supplies they do suggest that the use of psychoactive substances was part of WWI.

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