Ergot: from Blight to Blessing
Ergot, a truly fascinating fungus, is a medical story that reaches all around the world and back in time to the beginning of agriculture 13,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent. Ergotism, a disease caused from ingesting ergot, was a blight on humanity causing death by gangrene and by attacking the neurological system.
The fungus grows on small grains like rye, oats and wheat, growing naturally in damp, cool growing seasons. It makes its way into the “staff of life,” bread, with stunningly dramatic consequences. As examples, the Assyrians, 600-500 BC, used ergot as a biological weapon by contaminating their enemies’ wells with ergot, and in 945 CE, 40,000 died in Paris of the “Plague of Fire” caused by ergotism.
With the development of chemistry, the alkaloids of ergot became the basis of medicines, saving lives not taking them. Related stories include witch trials, LSD, the CIA, Midwifery and the saving of countless lives on the battlefields of WWII.