In medical anthropology we look at infection disease origins, their interaction with culture, and the medical implications for the individual and society. Infectious disease, whether epidemic or endemic, tend to draw the most attention. This article is about another disease category that is less well known: the poisons in food caused by micro fungi.

We are all familiar with the modern day 'food forager' looking for mushrooms who in looking for a rare delicacy, inadvertently selections a poisonous morsel and become gravely ill. Fungi can affect the mind as well as the body.

The poisons of fungi, or mycotoxins as they are called may alter the mental states of those who have ingested them. Such poisonous substances have cause mass psychoses in communities and even nations.

Micro fungi compete with humans for the supply of available food plants. Some infect grain growing in the field; others contaminate grain in storage. Food poisoning from mycotoxins can limit human fertility. They can cause sudden death. By acting as immunosuppressant, damaging the body's powers to resist infection, mycotoxins have made populations all the more susceptible to infectious disease.

More dramatically, they produced hallucinations or feelings of numbness or suffocation--symptoms which in the past might have been interpreted as bewitchment or possession by the devil.

In this article we focus on a mycotoxin found in rye that can contaminate bread. In previous centuries, bread was literally the staff of life. People would eat two or three pounds of bread a day and nothing else. If it was contaminated, in became an agent of death.



Ergot is a fungal disease of rye grass. It transforms the grain into enlarged, hard, dark spur-like structures. (My note: ergot comes from Old French; it means spur.)

It grows best in damp conditions. Variations in weather are therefor crucial for its growth. LSD, a popular street drug some years ago, can be extracted from ergot. (My note: in an irony so frequent in medicine, ergot--a poison--is used to control excessive bleeding in childbirth.)

Ergotism is a form of fungal poisoning caused by the ingestion of the ergot fungus. It infects porridge and breads made from the grain. Ergot is best known for the two frequent extreme forms of the disease: convulsive and gangrenous. The reddening or blistering of the skin has earned it the occasional name of St. Anthony's Fire. (Scarlet fever and erysipelas are caused by a streptococci infection and causes similar skin redness, a problem for diagnosis until this century.)

In most of Europe north of the Alps and Pyrenees, as in Russia, the staple food of the masses two hundred years ago was bread made from rye. Ergotism has historically occurred in areas which used much rye. Since ergot fungus grows best in damp conditions, epidemics were most likely to occur after a severe winter or a rainy spring. In the last 200 years, the Russian people suffered most--faced with a cold climate, they depended on rye which is a particularly hardy grass. The Russian epidemics subsided with increasing potato production. Ergot passes readily into a nursing mother's milk. Thus, a century ago, Russia had the highest infant mortality rates in Europe.

From 1865 until the Communist Revolution, Russia collected statistics on its people, crops, and weather. It was from this data that inferences were made about egotism in areas heavily dependent on rye grass. Wet weather and rye consumption correlated with ergotism.


Fungi are plants without chlorophyll. They include mushrooms, mildews, and molds. Not all chemicals that they produce are poisonous to humans. The antibiotic penicillin was originally manufactured from Penicillium fungi.

Gangrenous ergotism may cause loss of fingers, toes, and limbs to 'dry gangrene', a consequence of extreme vasoconstriction (capillary closure). Convulsive ergotism causes a nervous dysfunction such as writhing, tremors, or convulsions. It can cause temporary or a permanent psychosis. Hallucinations, particularly in adolescents, are produced with mild poisoning with ergot. We will take note of the social implications of this symptom syndrome shortly. Ergotism can be very lethal: for survivors, there is a 'reverse immunity' of sorts: a victim who survives the first exposure is even more susceptible the next time.

A clue to ergotism and the ergot alkaloids that cause it is the distinctive red color. It is readily visible in refined flour, but goes undetected in dark rye products. Ergot is most likely to form in a growing season when the preceding winter was cold.

Prior to 1945, the Russian people suffered more from fungal poisoning than any other major European nation. This is due to the cold climate and dependence on rye as a dietary staple. The first diagnosed epidemic of ergotism dated from 1785 at Oster, near Kiev. The Russian statistics gathered over a century ago showed a drop in fertility after a harvest rich in ergot.

Most likely, ergotism was indigenous in Russia in far earlier times. It was called porcha by common people and hysteria or nervous fever by physicians. Although the cause of egotism was known in Russia after 1832. effective efforts to restrict the ergot content of rye was limited to the military. No restrictions were placed on civilian consumption. (My note: ergot in the rye harvest makes the news occasionally in the United States. The permitted maximum legal content in the US today is 0.03%.)

As noted earlier, ergotism declined in Russia after 1900 and continued to decline into the Soviet period, in part due to increased potato production. Improved harvesting and storage since World War II have largely eliminated the problem there.

Western Europe and to a lesser degree England may have had their own episodes of ergotism. (My note: dairy products reduce convulsive ergotism.) England's relative freedom from it was attributable to its diet rich in milk, butter, and cheese.

The late Middle Ages are recorded as a crazy and violent period. Some historians speculate that in the cold, wet period, various microfungi exerted a compelling influence on human health and the mind.

The Black Death in the Late Middle Ages may have been aided by ergotism. Plague, the disease of the Black Death was spread by fleas carried by rats. The disease occurrence strongly correlated with the incidence of humidity, rain, and flooding. You should keep in mind that one of the effects of ergotism is immunosuppression. Following the Black Death of 1848-1850, there was a decline in fertility, also an effect of ergotism.



The Salem witchcraft trials of 1692 in North America saw the arrest of some 250 persons suspected of witchcraft and the execution of nineteen of them. (My note: If you think the hanging was bad, one person, Giles Corey, was pressed to death! An irascible 80 year old, Corey refused to enter a plea. Weights were piled on him to force compliance but death intervened. Four other persons died in jail.)

Could egotism have contributed to the Salem witch trials here in America? Rye was grown in Essex county in the late seventeenth century. It was not a first choice: It was grown when wheat crops were devastated by rust. Women who attended a 'witch sacrament' testified that their sacramental bread was red. Also, 24 of the 30 victims experienced fits and hallucinations along with the sensation of being pricked or bitten. Others reported feeling a burning sensation in their fingers, lameness, or temporary blindness. Do understand that all of this is implication, not proof. Yet, the conclusions are intriguing.



During 1741 was a phenomenon in New England known as the Great Awakening, a religious revival that reached its peak in the fall of that year. Hundreds, even thousands of people experienced fits, trances, and visions. People in New England at that time were suffering from a 'nervous disease' as it was then called. A parallel was reported in Viatka Province in Russian during 1889-1990 when the mental symptoms were trembling, confusion, fluctuating moods, attacks of excitement, and hallucinations. Some liked their hallucinations, reporting that they had been in paradise. In this outbreak there was confirmed ergotism.



Can you get high on great literature? If you spend enough time around old books and decaying manuscripts in dismal archives, you can start to hallucinate. Really! Molds abound in old books and may contribute to 'enhancement in enlightenment.' Most people, however, merely experience coughing, runny nose, and sneezing. While an astonishing variety of molds have been cultured from old books, ergot has yet to be discovered in them.

..... CJ '99


"Could it be that old books are really, uh, mind-altering?" Chicago Tribune Sept 21, 1996

Kipple, K. Plague, Pox & Pestilence. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1997.

Matoissian, M. Poisons of the Past. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.

Rice, E. The Salem Witch Trials. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1997.