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From Poison Arrows to Prozac: How Deadly Toxins Changed Our Lives Forever

From Poison Arrows to Prozac: How Deadly Toxins Changed Our Lives Forever

by Stanley Feldman

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In the 16th century, when explorers traveled deeper into the jungles of South America in search of gold and spices, they brought back many colorful tales of their adventures to amaze and impress their sponsors. None of these tales was more astonishing, or caused more concern, than that of the mystical properties of the substance with which the natives anointed


In the 16th century, when explorers traveled deeper into the jungles of South America in search of gold and spices, they brought back many colorful tales of their adventures to amaze and impress their sponsors. None of these tales was more astonishing, or caused more concern, than that of the mystical properties of the substance with which the natives anointed their darts and arrows. So begins the astonishing true story of the discovery of one of the most important substances in medical science. Curare poison was to become the cornerstone of modern anaesthetics and went on to provide the key to how we understand the nervous system, leading to drugs as diverse as indigestion pills and Prozac. More recently it has led to our understanding of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. In this fascinating book, Professor Stanley Feldman traces the evolution of a substance that has saved countless lives and revolutionized the way we see our minds and bodies.

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John Blake Publishing, Limited
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From Poison Arrows to Prozac

How Deadly Toxins Changed our Lives Forever

By Stanley Feldman

John Blake Publishing Ltd

Copyright © 2009 Stanley Feldman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-85782-845-0


The South American Arrow Poison

A spice is a dried seed, root, bark or fruit used as a food additive for flavouring and indirectly for preventing putrefaction and the growth of pathogenic bacteria.

Spices, such as cloves, have been used to flavour foods since ancient times. The Bible tells, in Genesis, how Joseph was sold into 'the slavery of spice merchants' by his brothers. There are frequent references to the use of clove oil in Roman literature, where it was used to mask body odours and for religious rituals. However, until the Middle Ages, the practice of using spices in the preparation of food was largely restricted to the Middle East. In these countries, cinnamon, black pepper, cloves, saffron, cassia and ginger were used by those wealthy enough to afford them.

It is probable that the taste for these spices was brought to Europe by the Crusaders. At first they were used mainly by the rich merchants of France and Spain, but eventually their use spread to England. By the fifteenth century the demand for these spices had spread throughout the whole of northern Europe, although they were always too expensive to be used in everyday cooking. In spite of their cost, the demand for pepper, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ginger was huge.

By the end of the fifteenth century it was estimated that about 1,000 tons of pepper and 1,000 tons of other spices were imported into the Port of London each year. Pepper was widely used to disguise the flavour of meat from animals that had been slaughtered before the onset of winter and kept from going bad by salting and pickling. Without the addition of a spice the meat was invariably so salty that it had to be soaked in water to make it eatable.

So it was that, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, shops selling pepper and other spices and merces were commonplace in the streets and alleys of towns such as London. The trade in pepper was so important that it led to the establishment, by Royal Charter, of the Company of Pepperers. It eventually became a part of the newly formed Grocers Company.

Unfortunately, by the second half of the fifteenth century, pepper was in short supply and the price had escalated, putting it out of reach of all but the very wealthy. Part of the increase in cost was due to a growth in demand, as it became more and more fashionable, but most of the price rise was due to the insecurity and expense of its transportation to England from the Orient and the Far East, where it was produced.

Almost all the spices came from the Moluccan (or Maluku) Islands of the East Indies – known as the Spice Islands – and from the southern coastal areas of India and Serendip (Sri Lanka). At its source in these countries a bale of pepper would cost less than one guinea (£1.05) but, by the time it reached the shops in London, it would sell for more than a hundred times that amount. This was due to the long and hazardous journey necessary to bring the spices to Europe.

Originally, most of the spices travelled by the Silk Route across Asia to Constantinople (Istanbul), but this route, largely exploited by the traders from the Republic of Venice, became increasingly difficult after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Caliphate. The alternative route started in the Orient, where bales of spices were loaded onto boats and carried by Arab traders across the Red Sea. They then travelled overland to the ports of the Mediterranean, such as Alexandria. A large part of this land route was controlled by Arab warlords, who either extracted a toll or required a duty to be paid when goods passed through their lands.

There was a particularly sharp rise in the price of all the spices following the fall of Egypt to the Ottoman Empire in 1453. This gave them control of the all the Mediterranean ports of the Levant and Egypt. The problem was made worse because at this time the Ottoman Empire was at war with Catholic Europe.

Christopher Columbus

By the middle of the fifteenth century only the very wealthy could afford to use spices. Their use became restricted to great banquets and grand occasions. Because of the increase in demand, there was considerable commercial interest in finding an alternative way of bringing these spices from the Orient to Europe. This caused an upsurge of interest in the possibility of finding a sea route from Europe to the Indies and the Far East.

It resulted in some of the great voyages of exploration that took place at this time. It led Henry, King of Portugal, to establish a school of navigation at Cape St Vincent, the most westerly point of the European continent, to train sailors and to encourage exploration of the coast of Africa in the hope of finding a way to the Indies and the Spice Islands.

In the early part of the fifteenth century, Portuguese and Spanish sailors sailed down the coast of Africa in the hope of finding a way around this seemingly endless land mass. They also voyaged across the Atlantic as far as Madeira and the Canary Islands, where they established colonies. In 1488, Bartholomew Diaz, a Portuguese explorer, returned to Lisbon having found the southernmost tip of the African continent. His rapturous reception was not only a tribute to his navigational skills but also recognition of the commercial implications of his voyage. It opened up the possibility of an alternative route to the Spice Islands by sailing round the Cape of Good Hope and to the East. It eventually led to the voyage of Vasco de Gama in 1499 and the establishment of a Portuguese colony in Goa, India, in 1510.

It would not have been at all surprising if the Genoese sailor Christopher Columbus had been dockside in Lisbon when Bartholomew Diaz returned home in 1488. At the time of Diaz's voyage, Columbus had left his native country and settled with his wife and children in Lisbon, where, together with his brother Batholomew, he earned his living as a map maker. He no doubt listened carefully to the accounts of the voyages made by these early explorers and incorporated the information gleaned from their stories into his maps.

There is little doubt that most navigators at the time realised that the world was a sphere, but they had little idea of distances involved or the land masses that existed. Many believed that there was open sea between Europe and Asia, and sailing to the West from Europe would land them in Asia and the East Indies. This view was the result of the writings of Ptolemy, who considered half the surface of the world to be covered with water and the other to be composed of the land mass of Europe and Asia. (Fig 1)

Columbus became convinced, after studying the maps available at that time and listening to the tales told by sailors returning to Lisbon, that it would be possible to reach the East Indies by sailing some 2,400 miles to the West across the Ocean Sea, as the Atlantic was known. He came to this conclusion from calculations based on the erroneous notion prevalent at the time, that the sphere of the Earth was 25,255 kilometres in diameter. He concluded that the 2,400 miles to the Indies was 'not too great a space to be passed' and that such a voyage 'has become not only possible but certain, fraught with inestimable hazard and gain and most lofty among Christians'. The problem he faced was mainly one of logistics: how to carry sufficient water and food for such a long time at sea.

In his opinion, presented in his numerous petitions to the Spanish and Portuguese courts for royal patronage, he argued that this would be no further than sailing to the south around the tip of Africa and then to the East and across the Indian Ocean, and it was likely to prove less hazardous. However, his attempts to interest the Portuguese king in the adventure failed, since he could not persuade the cautious Portuguese that he could overcome the difficulty of carrying sufficient food and water for such a long time at sea.

After the failure of his attempts to obtain royal consent from the Portuguese – who by the latter part of the fifteenth century had established a vested interest in the passage around Africa to the Far East – he turned to Spain. After an initial failure, he finally persuaded King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain to back the venture. It is recorded that this was largely due to the intervention of a converted Jew, Luis de Santangel, who was the keeper of the queen's purse and who probably drew up the rigorous terms under which royal patronage for the voyage was provided. Certainly, by 1492, when approval was granted, the king needed a source of money as the war to expel the Moors from Grenada and southern Spain had exhausted the treasury. Under the contract that was drawn up, half the cost of the expedition had to borne by the citizens, while the crown provided the rest of the money and received the lion's share of any bounty.

As dusk fell on the evening of 3 August 1492, Columbus's fleet of three small ships – the largest one, the Santa Maria, commanded by the newly promoted Admiral of the Oceans, Columbus, and the two caravels, the Pinta and the Niña – set sail from the port of Palos in southern Spain. Their first stop was the Canary Islands, where they obtained fresh food and water before setting out to sail across the ocean.

After five weeks at sea, they eventually sited land at 2 a.m. on 12 October 1492 and anchored off what is probably one of the islands in the Bahamas. They were fortunate in the choice of the time of year they chose to cross the Atlantic. Even today, yachtsmen sailing to the West Indies try to leave from the Canary Islands towards the end of September so as to pick up the favourable westerly winds prevalent at that time of year.

Clearly, it was not purely altruism or even the desire to establish new overseas colonies that persuaded the Spanish crown to support the expedition. The Spanish monarchs needed money to pay for the war against the Moors and the looming wars in Europe. Although this was a high-risk adventure, it promised enormous rewards if a secure route to the Spice Islands could be found by sailing across the Atlantic and spices could be brought to Europe through the ports of Spain.

When the three small caravels made landfall in the Caribbean, Columbus was confident that he had arrived in the East Indies. Even by the time he returned to Spain, he was unaware that he had not landed in the East Indies.

During the time he spent in the Caribbean he made several exploratory trips. On one such voyage he discovered Cuba (Hispaniola) and established a colony there. On his return to Spain, he painted a glowing picture of the fertile and beautiful land he had discovered, whose rivers contained gold and whose mountains were a rich source of minerals. He also suggested that he had evidence of countries that were rich in silver and gold that were a short distance to the west of the land he had found.

The Columbus trail

A combination of missionary zeal and the lure of gold led to further expeditions in the years following Columbus's return from his first voyage to the New World. Very soon Spanish colonies were established on the island of Hispaniola and at Darien, on the southern end of the Panama isthmus. It was from this latter colony that Hernán Cortés led his expedition to the land of Montezuma and the Aztecs, in what is now Mexico. He sent back gold and silver treasure to King Charles in Spain as evidence of the riches to be found in the New World.

However, it was the exploits of Francisco Pizarro, a noble of Salamanca who became an influential figure in the disputatious court of the governor of Hispaniola, that fired the imagination of the Spanish court. Although Amerigo Vespucci and Francisco Pizarro had explored the coast of South America as far as the origin of the Amazon, they had met hostile savages who had denied them access to water and victuals necessary for a prolonged exploration.

By a feat of great seamanship, Pizarro travelled much further down the South American coast and, after many false starts, made his way inland to discover the secret of the Incas in the heights of the Peruvian Andes. The enormous quantities of gold and silver sent back to Spain from his conquest led to credible stories reaching Europe of cities of gold and silver and of untold treasure to be had by those bold enough to venture to this New World.

The arrow poison

When the news of the gold and silver being brought to Spain reached the sea ports of Europe, it caused feverish excitement. Many ill-prepared adventurers soon set out on the perilous voyage to the New World. For the first time in Europe money was available to back these schemes. Sir Thomas Gresham had built his Royal Exchange near the stock market in London and risk companies were established to fund 'merchant adventurers of good report'. Although most of the voyagers who set out for the New World were privateers and buccaneers seeking their fortunes, there were also a number of soldiers and monks among them eager to convert the heathen and to establish dominion over this new land.

Inexperienced adventurers, many of whom had never been beyond their home town or village, crowded into small, poorly constructed vessels that were unsuitable for the long ocean crossing. They knew nothing of the prevailing winds and storms in the southern ocean, the extremes of climate they would have to endure or the privations they would suffer. Many died of dehydration, scurvy, disease and starvation on the long sea journey. The vessels were seldom big enough to carry sufficient provisions.

Many never reached the New World. Of those that did a large number suffered scurvy, typhus and swamp fever. One can only imagine the fear and wonderment with which those who survived the journey viewed this foreign land. As they landed, they found themselves surrounded by hostile natives, armed with spears and blow darts, who would suddenly emerge from the seemingly impenetrable jungle lining the shores, with their faces and bodies covered with paint and feathers. (Fig 2) They found ferocious animals and brightly coloured birds that were unlike anything they had ever seen before. They had to cross muddy rivers swarming with flesh- devouring fish and with alligators that bit off the limbs of the unwary. They encountered poisonous snakes and swarms of stinging insects whose bites produced sores and fever.

They brought back colourful tales of their adventures to amaze and impress their sponsors. None of these tales was more astonishing, or caused more concern, than that of the mystical properties of the substance into which the natives dipped their darts and arrows. They described, in some detail, 'the flying death' caused by the magical South American arrow poison. (figure 3)

The practice of anointing arrows and darts with poisons was not new: it had been common practice in ancient times. Homer refers to their use, and in Virgil's Aeneid, Ovid is described as smearing his arrows with 'viper's blood' and Apollo's darts were said to carry 'pestilence'. The word toxin is itself derived from the etymological stem toxon, meaning a bow or a bow and arrow. There is evidence that the practice of dipping arrows into concoctions of poisonous herbs was common in Europe among the Celts and Gauls, but that it had died out with the advent of more effective weapons and the discovery of gunpowder. From the stories told by the explorers of the New World, the effects of the poisoned arrows were at first thought to be some form of witchcraft. It was only when the natives were observed dipping their darts into the sticky concoction of poisonous herbs that the reason for their lethal effect became obvious.

This lethal effect was consistently reported by voyagers who returned from these jungles. Especially terrifying tales were told by those who ventured along the Amazon River and into the Orinoco Basin, where the bloodthirsty warriors, native to this region, used a particularly potent form of the poison for hunting their prey and killing their enemies.

It is the tales from these explorers that contained the most graphic details of the 'flying death' wreaked by the blow darts used by these Indians. Many of the published reports were written to titillate a European audience hungry for excitement, who longed for extraordinary stories of exotic discoveries and flesh-creeping tales of the dangers of this New World. It is not surprising that some of the stories were purposely embellished and made absurdly fanciful to increase their appeal to an expectant and gullible audience and to boost the sales of their books. As a result it is difficult to distinguish where fact ends and mysticism begins.

Clearly, the death caused by the poison was horrendous. Stories of the victim dying with 'staring eyes', of his 'bowels exploding', of his being in 'convulsions' and 'fixed to the ground unable to move' are so common in published reports that they must, in large part, be believed. One of the most frightening aspects of the nature of the death was that there appeared to be nothing that could be done to remedy the effect of the poison. It soon became apparent that there was a pressing need for an antidote with which to treat the victims, but first more had to be known about what the poison was and how it killed its victims.

Possibly the earliest details of how it was produced came from the account of the Italian monk, Peter Martyr d'Anghiera, who joined an expedition established to convert the heathen natives to the Catholic faith. He published an account of his report to the Spanish court early in the sixteenth century. The book, De Orbe Novo ('Of the New World'), which was translated by Dr Mac Nutt of New York, tells of a poisonous concoction being made by members of a small cabal of female elders who were kept sealed in a special hut for one or two days. He wrote that 'they often died from inhaling the fumes.'(Fig 4)


Excerpted from From Poison Arrows to Prozac by Stanley Feldman. Copyright © 2009 Stanley Feldman. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Stanley Feldman is the author of Life Begins . . . and coeditor of Panic Nation.

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