Ergot and Saint Anthony's Fire

Ergot is the common name of a fungus in the genus Clavicepsthat is parasitic on certain grains and grasses. The fungus produces a potent alkoloid that when ingested can cause hallucinations, irrational behavior, convulsions, vascular restriction that can lead to gangrene and loss of limbs, and death. It was first noted in writings from China as early as 1100 BCE.

In 994, 20,000-40,000 people died from eating infected rye bread in southern France. Shrouded in religious superstition of sin, it became known as Saint Anthony’s Fire because the monk had some success in treating the burning sensation in the limbs. Some researchers believe that an outbreak of ergotism may have contributed to the "bewitchings" that led to the Salem witch trials in the United States in 1691. Ergot also causes uterine contractions and has been used to induce abortions since the Middle Ages. Several modern drugs, such as Methergin, were developed from ergot to control postnatal bleeding.

Natural chemicals are not necessarily beneficial but can further our understanding of biology and lead to useful drugs.