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J R Coll Physicians Edinb. 2009 Jun;39(2):179-84.

The history of ergot of rye (Claviceps purpurea) I: from antiquity to 1900.

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University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK.


This article outlines the history of ergot of rye up to 1900. Ergot is a fungal disease that affects many grasses but is particularly damaging to rye. It occurs as the result of an infection by the parasitic organism Claviceps purpurea, which produces characteristic black spurs on the grass. When incorporated into grain, the ergot fungus can cause severe outbreaks of poisoning in humans called ergotism. There are two main clinical forms of toxicity, gangrenous and convulsive, where coma and death often supervene: the death rate for ergotism has been reported to be between 10 and 20 per cent in major outbreaks. Historical accounts note that ergot could accelerate labour, stop postpartum haemorrhage and inhibit lactation. At the end of the nineteenth century ergot was still regarded as a 'glorious chemical mess', but help would arrive in the early 1900s and the complex jigsaw would be solved.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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