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MR Lee
Journal Issue: 
Volume 39: Issue 2: 2009




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.