Journal Mobile

MR Lee
Journal Issue: 
Volume 36: Issue 4: 2006




Hyoscyamus, the henbane, is one of the drugs of the ancients.  Initially used both as a poison and narcotic, it was widely adopted by witches, wizards and soothsayers as a component of their hallucinatory and flying ointments. It was also used by notorious poisoners such as Madame Voisin in France.  Eventually, in the nineteenth  century  its  active  principle  was  isolated  by  Ladenburg  and  called  l-hyoscine.  It proved to be a tropane alkaloid very similar to atropine. These two alkaloids  proved  to  be  very  important  in  the  study  of  the  parasympathetic component of the autonomic nervous system, and together with physostigmine, allowed  the  major  neurotransmitter  acetylcholine  to  be  isolated  and  its mechanisms of action to be characterised. The Crippen murder case in 1910 gave hyoscine  further  fame, indeed, notoriety.  The  unassuming  homeopathic  doctor murdered  his  wife  with  the  alkaloid  and  then  decamped  for  Canada  with  his mistress  Ethel  Le  Neve.    The  case  became  a  worldwide  sensation  for  several reasons: the arrest of the fugitive couple by wireless telegraphy (Marconigram) and the  extensive  chemical  and  histological  evidence  presented  by  Willcox  and Spilsbury.  Some  authorities  claim  that  this  was  the  beginning  of  the  science  of forensic  medicine  in  Britain.    Hyoscine  is  now  hardly  ever  used  in  modern therapeutics but its history from antiquity to the witches and on to Dr Crippen is both bizarre and fascinating.