The first mention of hallucinogenic mushrooms in European medical literature

Psilocybe semilanceata

It’s to be understood that when “Science” announces a discovery, that it doesn’t mean it wasn’t known long ago. It just means “Science” has discovered it, and most importantly publicly announced and included it among the compendium of things known to humanity. They also reserve among themselves the right to name it and forever attach their names to it as discoverer.

This is the way it is with plants. The natives may have known about it for generations, but they don’t count. Same with archeology. All the local children probably know about a cave and cave drawings, and all anyone ever had to do was go ask a child about the neat stuff in his neighbourhood.

So when we talk about the first mention of hallucinogenic mushrooms in Europe, we qualify it by saying “the first mention of hallucinogenic mushrooms in European medical literature.

The following is a transcript of the first mention of hallucinogenic mushrooms in European medical literature, but whether or not it was known previously, we don’t know. It seems likely that it was, but nobody published it.

In 1799 a man picked some mushrooms for his family’s breakfast in London’s Green Park. He’d picked them from the same spot before and they’d eaten them with no effects, but this time, they got stoned on what turned out to be Psilocybe semilanceata mushrooms.

The father sought help, and received it from the eminent physician Everard Brande who was at hand. Doctor Brande treated them as best he could, without knowing what they had taken, and he subsequently had the mushrooms identified and submitted a letter to the London Medical and Physical Journal about it.

That made it official – the first mention of hallucinogenic mushrooms in European medical literature.

London's Green Park. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0
London’s Green Park. Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Despite our breezy tone, Doctor Brande’s letter is formal, accurate and thorough, and illustrates typically high standards. He had the father go back to the site to get more mushrooms, and Doctor Brande had them identified at Oxford and they identified them in collaboration with Mr Sowerby who was a highly regarded illustrator of natural history and the patriarch of generations of well-respected naturalists. Mr. Sowerby added an illustration to his exhaustive Coloured Figures of English Fungi or Mushrooms which is excerpted, below (any errors in transcription are ours). The Agaricus mushrooms named are now known as as Psilocybe semilanceata. Even though you get to name a new species, that doesn’t mean someone won’t come along and change it, so even for scientists, the future is uncertain.

First:

Doctor Brande’s letter to the Editors of the Medical and Physical Journal:

————————————————————————————————

Mr. E. Brande on a poisonous Species of Agaric.

To the Editors of the Medical and Physical Journal
Gentlemen,

If the following account of the deleterious effects of a very common species of agaric not hitherto generally suspected to be poisonous, appears to you likely to prove useful or interesting to the public you will oblige me by its insertion; should its length be any obstacle to this, I beg you will omit whatever you may think superfluous. I remain, Gentlemen, Your’s, most obediently EVERARD BRANDE. No. 10, Arlington street. Nov. 16th, 1799.

JS gathered early in the morning of the third of October, in the Green Park, what he supposed to be small mushrooms; these he stewed with the common additions in a tinned iron saucepan.[1] The whole did not exceed a tea saucerful, which he and four of his children ate the first thing, about eight o clock in the morning, as they frequently had done without any bad consequence; they afterwards took their usual breakfast of tea, &c. which was finished about nine, when Edward, one of the children, (eight years old,) who had eaten a large proportion of the mushrooms, as they thought them, was attacked with fits of immoderate laughter, nor could the threats of his father or mother restrain him To this succeeded vertigo, and a great degree of stupor, from which he was roused by being called or shaken, but immediately relapsed. The pupils of his eyes were, at times, dilated to nearly the circumference of the cornea, and scarcely contracted at the approach of a strong light; his breathing was quick, his pulse very variable, at times imperceptible, at others too frequent and small to be counted; latterly, very languid, his feet were cold, livid, and contracted; he sometimes pressed his hands on different parts of his abdomen, as if in pain, but when roused and interrogated as to it, he answered indifferently, yes or no, as he did to every other question evidently without any relation to what was asked. About the same time the father aged forty, was attacked with vertigo, and complained that every thing appeared black then wholly disappeared; to this succeeded loss of voluntary motion and stupor; his pupils were dilated; his pulse slow, full, and soft; breathing not affected; in about ten minutes he gradually recovered; but complained of universal numbness and coldness great dejection, and a firm persuasion that he was dying; in few minutes he relapsed, but recovered as before, and had several similar fits during three or four hours, each succeeding one less violent and with longer intermissions than the former.

Harriet, twelve years old, who had eaten but a very quantity, was attacked also at the same time with slight vertigo.

At nine o clock I first saw them and ordered a solution ten grains of tartar emetic, in four ounces of water, to be immediately given to each in proportioned doses. It soon the desired effect on the father and on Harriet, both of whom felt themselves much relieved by its operation. As soon as the stomach of the former could bear it, I ordered him an ounce of castor oil, and half an hour afterwards, vinegar and water, of each two ounces. He took three such doses, at intervals of half an hour, when he had a stool, and voided large quantities of urine, and although not perfectly recovered, did not appear to require any thing more.

To Harriet, who had had two or three attacks of slight vertigo, with some languor, I gave, (after the operation of the emetic,) on the suggestion of my friend, Dr Burges, who happened to be present, thirty drops of sal volatile [smelling salts], in a table spoonful of water. This relieved her exceedingly. and by repeating the dose twice in the course of an hour, she was perfectly cured.

From the difficulty with which Edward was made to swallow any thing, and from the large quantity required, it was eleven o clock before he had taken enough of the emetic solution to excite vomiting; by this time the poison had produced so powerful an effect upon his system, that he did not appear in the least relieved by it. I now ordered him a stimulating injection, applied a blister to his neck, and by degrees made him swallow some small quantities of sal volatile diluted with no more water than was absolutely necessary; his feet were frequently rubbed with and wrapped up in warm flannels; in half an hour the injection was repeated; this soon procured two stools, when he was sensibly relieved, knew the voice of his father and mother, and complained of coldness and insensibility about his stomach. His whole abdomen was well rubbed before a fire with some camphorated strong volatile liniment, which, at his own request, was repeated two or three times; he continued also to take the sal volatile, and some castor oil. By four o clock every violent symptom had left him, drowsiness and occasional giddiness only remaining, both of which, with some head ache, continued during the following day.

Charlotte, a delicate little girl, ten years old, naturally of a most mild and tractable disposition, who also had eaten a large proportion, was suddenly attacked in the presence of Dr. Burges and myself, about half after ten, with vertigo and loss of voluntary motion; her pupils were very much dilated, and sight greatly impaired; these symptoms soon gave place to a degree of delirium, in which she refused to take any thing,, forcibly striking whatever was offered to her. A blister was applied to her neck; and having given her a strong dose of the emetic solution, immediately on the first attack, which, though late, operated violently, she became composed as the sickness went off; and after taking a few doses of the sal volatile, was perfectly well, and wholly unconscious of any thing that had passed since the commencement of the symptoms; her pulse, which hitherto had not been much affected, was now irregular, and continued so , though in a less degree, during the whole of the day.

Martha, aged eighteen, who had eaten a small proportion, was attacked about eleven o clock with symptoms exactly the same as those of Harriet. She was treated in the same manner with similar success.

From the evident utility of determining the species to which these agarici belonged, I desired the man who had gathered and partaken of them to bring me some of the same; and on inquiry found he had for several years been in the habit of gathering, in the same place, what he was confident were the same sort. Part of those which he brought me, I sent to Dr. Williams, Botany Professor of Oxford, to whom I had related the cases. In a note which he had the kindness to send me, he says, “Having since passed a short time in company with Mr. Sowerby,[2] he has compared them with the Fungi and plates in his Museum. Mr. S. has no doubt respecting the species; it appears to be a variety of the Agaricus glutinosus of Curtis, (Flora Londinensis) the same with Dr, Withering’s Agaricus semiglobatus, yet no notice is taken either by Curtis or Withering of its deleterious quality. This may seem irregular as its effects were so strongly marked, unless any mistake has been made by the person who collected the specimens.”

I have also examined some of the same parcel with Mr. Wheeler, Demonstrator of Botany of the Apothecary’s Company, whose testimony concurring with the above, leaves no room to doubt their authority.

As some of your readers may not readily have an opportunity of referring to either of the authors already mentioned, I shall add Curtis’s description of the species Agaricus glutinosus.

“Stalks generally single, sometimes clustered, from two to four inches in height, the thickness of a goose quill, thread shaped, whitish, almost solid; the tube being very small, glutinous; ring, a little below the cap, scarce perceptible.”

“Cap, from one to two inches in breadth, of a brown colour; in the full grown ones, hemispherical, always convex, and more or less glutinous; wet with rain, it becomes browner and transparent, so that it sometimes appears striated.”

“Gills numerous, single, of a brownish purple colour, clouded; whole ones about twenty, horizontal, three shorter ones placed betwixt them; they throw out a powder of a brownish purple colour.”

“With respect to the use of it, he only says, “There is nothing acrimonious or disagreeable in its taste. yet its appearance will not recommend it to the lovers of mushrooms.”

“The variety, however, in question, (which is almost constantly to be met with on pasture land during autumn,) differs from this description chiefly in being of a conical form, as will be perfectly well seen in No 19, of Mr. Sowerby’s English Fungi to be published on the first of January, next; for the useful purpose of shewing which Mr. S. has expressly added figures 1, 2, and 3, of Table 248.”

P. 41.
The Medical and Physical Journal, Volume 3
R. Phillips, 1800 – Medicine

———————————————————————–

Mr Sowerby’s addition to Coloured Figures of English Fungi or Mushrooms, based on the samples sent to him:

Sowerby J. (1803). Coloured Figures of English Fungi or Mushrooms. 3. London: J. Davis. Table  248.
Sowerby J. (1803). Coloured Figures of English Fungi or Mushrooms. 3. London: J. Davis. Table  248.
Sowerby J. (1803). Coloured Figures of English Fungi or Mushrooms. 3. London: J. Davis. Table  248.Sowerby J. (1803). Coloured Figures of English Fungi or Mushrooms. 3. London: J. Davis. Table  248.

Footnotes

  1. Doctor Brande’s footnote: This accuracy may seem trivial, but I have met with people who supposed the following symptoms might have risen from the use of a copper vessel. []
  2. [James Sowerby’s 1803 book] Author of Coloured Figures of English Fungi [or Mushrooms]. []

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.