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Dr. John Briggs Eats Some Peyote
It seemed to me my heart was simply running away with itself, and it was with considerable difficulty I could breathe air enough to keep me alive. I felt intoxicated, and for a short time particularly lost consciousness.
— John Briggs, May 1887
Peyote was well known in Ignacio Sendejas's world, used within a variety of Indian communities from west-central Mexico into what is today the southwestern United States as a sacrament, and used by curers and botanists in the borderlands for any variety of ailments. Outside of the borderlands, however, Euro-Americans had scant knowledge of the cactus. The doctors and scientists in Mexico City who were then endeavoring to create a modern state had little interest in things tainted by indigeneity, and most could not have identified peyote or discussed its properties in any detail. Beyond Mexico the classificatory challenges were even greater, in part because the name peyote had long been associated with at least three different plants. Early in the colonial period, Bernardino de Sahagún classified two plants as peyote, one identified with Xochimilco and the other with Zacatecas. Decades later Francisco Hernández coined the scientific term peyotl zacatensis to describe the cactus that we know today as peyote. Later still, when nineteenth-century North American and European botanists began to classify the myriad cacti found in Mexico, they identified no less than four species of cactus that went by the name peyote. Probably the first to correctly identify the cactus associated with indigenous ritual life was the French botanist Charles Antoine Lemaire, who in 1840 introduced the name Echitiocactus Williamsii for reasons that remain in dispute to this day (it was probably named for C. H. Williams, a British official who was at one time ambassador in Bahia, Brazil).
During these same years the proliferation of colloquial names for peyote signaled its growing use in the United States. Bartlett's Dictionary of Americanisms reports it as "whisky root" in its 1860 edition, indicating that "the Indians eat it for its exhilarating effect on the system, it producing precisely the same [effect] as alcoholic drinks." Traveling through south Texas in the late nineteenth century, the Norwegian ethnographer Carl Lumholtz was told that members of the Texas Rangers used mescal buttons (the local term for peyote) to stave off their hunger and fatigue when taken prisoner during the Civil War, soaking the buttons in water and calling them "white mule." Others reported that residents of the border regions where peyote grew abundantly used it for headaches, open sores, and rheumatism.
Peyote entered North American pharmacology in May 1887, when Dr. John Raleigh Briggs, a doctor living in Fort Worth, published an account of his experiment with the cactus in The Medical Register. His article, "'Muscale Buttons' — Physiological Effects — Personal Experience," describes symptoms that would be repeated again and again as medical researchers experimented with peyote. After taking the "mescale button," Briggs's pulse rate jumped from 60 to 90, and he began to breathe more rapidly. His head began to ache and he felt dizzy as his pulse rate reached 160 beats per minute. He described his distress:
The peculiar and dazed feelings I then experienced, together with alarm, prevented my taking notes on respirations, and therefore don't know the number, but they had certainly still further increased. It seemed to me my heart was simply running away with itself, and it was with considerable difficulty I could breathe air enough to keep me alive. I felt intoxicated, and for a short time particularly lost consciousness.
Briggs then rushed to the office of his friend, Dr. E.J. Beall, who prescribed large doses of smelling salts and whisky. After taking a long walk, he began to recover his senses, and within eight hours the only remaining symptom was a lingering depression, which was gone by the next day. Looking back, he was chastened by the experience. "I believe if prompt aid had not been given me I should have died."
Briggs's account was momentous in two ways. First, it marked the beginning of a period in which the effort to identify peyote shifted from traditional botany (a system of classification in which the cactus was identified by its physical appearance and habitat) and toward chemistry (in which the key identifying markers would lie in the physical effects that peyote produced in bodies). Second, a reprint of the article in The Druggists' Bulletin caught the attention of George Davis, secretary and general manager of Parke, Davis and Company, who convinced Briggs to send him a cigar box filled with peyote buttons in June 1887. Frank Augustus Thompson, a chemist at the company, managed in July 1887 to prepare alcoholic extracts from the buttons, revealing numerous alkaloids. Over the next few years he and others in the company undertook numerous attempts to market peyote as a cardiac stimulant.
As luck would have it, around this time a prominent German toxicologist named Louis Lewin visited the company's offices in Detroit. Either Thompson or someone else at the company gave a few buttons to Lewin, who took them home to Berlin. He in turn showed the buttons to Paul Cristoph Hennings, a botanist at the Berlin Botanical Garden, who identified them as a new species of anhalonium cactus. He named it Anhalonium Lewinii in honor of Lewin. (The name would not stick. In 1894 US botanist John M. Coulter created the genus Lophophora and called peyote Lophophora Williamsii. This classification persists to this day.)
Working in his Berlin lab with the samples from Detroit, Lewin extracted his first alkaloid in 1888. He called it anhalonine, and after testing it on animals, he and Henning penned the first scientific paper on peyote. They found that anhalonine had a strong effect, causing agitation and muscle cramps in the test animals. The same tests also suggested that it was toxic in large doses, similar to strychnine. Human tests indicated that it produced no visual hallucinations, which suggested there were other important alkaloids yet to be extracted from the cactus.
Working in fits and starts because of the irregular supply of peyote, over the next several years Lewin and his colleagues in Germany would slowly begin to unpack the botanical mysteries of the cactus. Arthur Heffter at the Pharmacological Institute of the University of Leipzig identified pellotine in what was probably lophophora diffusa in 1894. Anhalonine had shown no effect on human subjects, but fifty- to sixty-milligram doses of pellotine made them sleepy without seeming to produce side effects. Still, subjects given the drug did not hallucinate, which meant that the researchers had still more work to do in identifying the most powerful alkaloids in the cactus.
In 1896, and this time definitely working with Anhalonium lewinii/Lophophora williamsii, Heffter identified four distinct alkaloids (mescaline, anhalonine, anhalonidine, and lophophorine). After conducting some self-experiments with mescaline (measured out so that his dose was the equivalent of about five buttons), he concluded that it, and not anhalonine or pellotine, was the most important alkaloid in the peyote cactus.
For his self-experiment Heffter made an extract residue by percolating the dried material with 95 percent alcohol and then evaporating the alcohol under vacuum. The extract was then placed on paper wafers to make it palatable. Heffter consumed the extract over half an hour between 10:15 and 10:45 in the morning. He experienced a series of common effects, including a change in pulse rate, nausea, a headache, dizziness, blurred vision, and clumsiness, but was particularly impressed by the visions, "richly colorful pictures ... which consisted partly of tapestry patterns and mosaics, and partly of winding colored ribbons moving with the rapidity of lightning." Heffter also experienced auditory hallucinations and other visions, which included shooting lights like "fireworks," and "thick purple intertwined roots and fibers on a dark, glossy background." He reported that his intellect remained unimpaired during the experiment, but that he experienced "the loss of the sense of time: I estimated a few minutes as lasting 1?2 hour. The 10-minute-long walk from my house to the laboratory seemed endlessly long."
Mescaline, denatured, purified, and distinct from peyote, was clearly a powerful drug. What remained was the question of whether this was something useful or merely interesting. It seemed obvious how one might position pellotine as a therapeutic drug, as its direct applicability as a sleep aid with no side effects was limited only by the rather high cost of extracting the alkaloid from Lophophora diffusa (the introduction of low-cost barbiturates in 1904 killed the market for pellotine). Heffter's mescaline visions, by contrast, did not portend obvious therapeutic uses. The specificity of his descriptions of the mescaline effect suggested that it was highly idiosyncratic, linked to the particular history and experiences of the person who took the drug. These types of experiences can be revelatory at an individual level but are not clearly useful when commercializing a drug. Pharmaceutical companies depend on a consistent effect from one patient to the next.
* * *
Back in the US, peyote research was faring no better. Working in laboratories that were inferior to their German counterparts, chemists at Parke Davis never made any progress in identifying the alkaloids in the peyote cactus. Peyote remained almost unknown among North American scientists until November 1891, when James Mooney, an employee of the Smithsonian Institution's Bureau of Ethnology, made a presentation at the Anthropological Association in Washington about a peyote ceremony he had witnessed the previous summer among the Kiowa Indians of Oklahoma. The ritual was relatively new to the community, having been introduced by proselytizers from the Comanche tribe, and Mooney was the first white man to observe it. At that point he had not taken any mescal buttons.
His first personal experience with peyote came the following summer when, on the advice of his informants, he ate some buttons to remain alert through the all-night Kiowa ceremony. Wanting to understand its effect further, two years later he purchased a large quantity of peyote from Comanche purveyors and took it back to Washington for study. He gave about half to Harvey Wiley, chief chemist at the US Department of Agriculture, who promised to undertake chemical tests. Another large sample was given to D. W. Prentiss and Francis Morgan of the medical department of the Columbian University in Washington (now George Washington University), who promised to test the buttons on human subjects. Mooney also sent a few buttons to the famed Philadelphia neurologist Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell.
Wiley tasked Ervin E. Ewell at the US Department of Agriculture with isolating and analyzing the active elements in the mescal buttons, but Ewell (seemingly unaware of the growing record of German publications on the cactus) decided to focus his energies on extracting resins from the buttons instead of isolating the alkaloids. The decision was misguided, but it may also have been strategic. He had the capacity to extract the resins, but his rudimentary equipment and poor technical skills made it impossible for him to isolate the alkaloids in his samples. In 1897, after three years of inconsistent results, the USDA abandoned the tests.
Ewell did not abandon the project before he tried the buttons himself. Wiley, who tried to discourage him, recounted the experiment years later.
So he took the buttons home with him and he chewed them in the manner described by Mr. Mooney as being practiced by the Indians; he chewed them until they formed a bolus, and then swallowing the bolus. ... About 2 o'clock on Sunday morning the condition of Mr. Ewell became so alarming to his roommate that he came with Mr. Ewell to my residence and awakened me, the laboratory mate feeling he could not take the responsibility any longer. ... It was 48 hours before he could sleep after he had taken these beans and after the excitement had gradually passed away. He was constantly talking and saying, "Oh, how beautiful; oh, how splendid; how magnificent." I was particularly struck with this expression. I knew something of his views and that he was a great admirer of Robert G. Ingersoll. One of the things he said was, "Oh, I wish I could talk with Ingersoll just for a minute; I could convince him that there is a heaven. I see it. I see the angels in the streets of gold.
Alarmed by Ewell's experience, Wiley concluded that the mescal buttons produced delusions, were a dangerous drug, and should be closely regulated.
Prentiss and Morgan took a somewhat more systematic approach in their study of the effect of peyote on humans, seeking to experiment in a way that was informed by the practices of the Kiowas. They believed that the Indians were "addicts" whose "tolerance" for significant quantities of peyote was "a result of both his own habitual use and of the hereditary influence received by him from his progenitors," yet they also believed that the rituals surrounding peyote use were important to understanding the effect. According to their 1895 report in the Therapeutic Gazette, they sought as much as possible to replicate those rituals (holding ceremonies at night, choosing only male subjects, and including drumming) over the course of their six experiments, but reduced the quantity of mescal buttons to what they felt was a reasonable level for white subjects. They found that between 3.5 and 7 (instead of the 10–12 taken in Kiowa ceremonies) could "produce a marked effect," including visions, colors, euphoria, lucidity, loss of conception of time, lowered heart rates without any effect on respiration, dilation of pupils, varying levels of muscular depression, partial anesthesia of the skin, and an inability to sleep. Prentiss and Morgan also found that the drumming enhanced the beauty of the visions that their subjects experienced.
That said, all the results were not entirely positive. One subject grew paranoid, thinking the others were trying to kill him. Another became unable to walk without assistance. Yet another reported a dual personality while under the influence. They also found that pleasure had an inverse relationship to muscular depression, and that some of the test subjects experienced headaches that persisted for some time after taking the mescal buttons. They did report that (as with the Kiowa rituals) there seemed to be no persistent aftereffects.
The word Prentiss and Morgan used to describe the effect — intoxication — reminds us of the conceptual limitations within which they worked. Lacking a vocabulary to describe what many today call psychedelic involvement, or a trip, they resorted to language that more easily aligned with drunkenness, even as they seemed to acknowledge the inadequacy of the term. Their tests suggested that peyote had some similarity to Cannabis indica (which was then in use for a variety of purposes), but while Cannabis indica was a hypnotic that led to sleep, mescal buttons produced neither effect. Also, while Cannabis indica created merriment, they described the mescal buttons as producing "wonder and admiration, but no merriment." Peyote was thus unlike the drugs then increasingly facing prohibitionist pressures: opium, marijuana, alcohol.
Interviewed by the Sunday Herald in Boston in the aftermath of the experiments, Prentiss reiterated his ambivalence. The drug produced vivid, colorful dreams and had few aftereffects, but he and his collaborators did not know how they might put it to use. "It promises to be valuable medicine, but its alkaloids and resinoids must be examined separately to ascertain which are the active principles." He doubted it could replace any drug then in circulation but offered that it "promises to become an important addition to the class of drugs known as nerve stimulants and tonics." When confronted with the concern that the "white man might become addicted to its use as an intoxicant," Prentiss equivocated. "The Indians are not addicted (no habit is formed) but we cannot say what will happen to Caucasians."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Peyote Effect"
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