Guest post by Laura Cooper
Strychnine is an infamous poison. It is most well-known by its appearance in the novels of Agatha Christie as an effective but unsubtle method of murder. It was widely available in the 19th century from chemists as a rat poison, but this was taken advantage of by a number of real life serial killers including Dr Thomas Cream who gave disguised as a medicine and in alcohol. But strychnine had another side to it. Its caffeine- like stimulating effects means it has been used as a performance enhancing drug in competitive sports.
Strychnine, along with the toxin brucine, is present in the seeds of Strychnos nux-vomica. Though its name is lurid, it does not have anything to do with vomiting, “nux vomica” translates as ‘bumpy nut’. S. nux-vomica is in the family Loganiaceae and is native to South-East Asia and India. It is a medium-sized tree with large smooth oval leaves. The flowers have a repellent smell and the fruit is apple-sized with a hard shell that is orange when ripe. Inside, the seed are held in soft gelatinous pulp. The seeds are flattened disks covered with fine hairs, their flatness gives them the nickname ‘Quaker buttons’. The strychnine is concentrated in the seeds, but the wood also possesses poisons including brucine. Strychnine in the S. nux- vomica plays the same role as abrin in Abrus precatorius, it prevents herbivore species evolving which specialize in eating these seeds, as the poison is so general that it will likely kill any animal that eats the seed.
Strychnine poisons by blocking glycine from binding to specific neurons in the central nervous system. Strychnine prevents glycine from carrying out its inhibitory role, so causes the central nervous system to over-react to the smallest stimulus.
Initially the muscles become stiff, which is followed by hyperreflexia, where small stimulus trigger powerful reflex reactions. Later, increasingly frequent whole body convulsions occur. These resemble those in tetanus, an explanation often used to cover up strychnine poisoning. Eventually the respiratory muscles become paralysed and death by asphyxiation occurs usually within a few hours. Strychnine cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, so the victim is fully conscious throughout, making strychnine poisoning one of the worst ways to die I can imagine.
The main method of treating strychnine poisoning is crude. The patient is given barbiturates and muscle relaxants and removed from stimuli to prevent convulsions until the strychnine is metabolised by the liver which takes a few days.
However, S. nux-vomica extracts have been used in herbal and alternative medicine. It has been recommended for many different health issues from abdominal pain, heart disease and migraines though there is no evidence for its efficacy as a drug. However, a low dose of strychnine stimulates the central nervous system in a similar way to caffeine, but to a greater extent. This gives it great potential to act as a placebo, which is likely why it was reported to treat a wide range of illnesses, as well as to help spur athletes to victory.
S. nux-vomica‘s stimulating effects were used in 19th and early 20th century Europe and America in competitive sports as one of an arsenal of performance enhancing drugs, which were even deemed necessary for some endurance sports. Strychnine helped the American Thomas Hicks secure an Olympic Gold Medal. He was given strychnine and brandy during the 1904 Olympic marathon when he was flagging, though he collapsed after crossing the finishing line he later recovered. To this day, strychnine is on the list of banned stimulants in the World Anti-Doping Agency International Standard Prohibited List.
The herbarium possesses a wealth of botanical specimens in a special collection called the Materia Medica. The Materia Medica collection houses a huge variety of plant derivatives that were used in Victorian times for their therapeutic benefits. Stored in a confusing order in awkward cupboards in a room seldom visited, the collection was in need of a re-organisation. Each sample is stored in a glass jar. On each glass jar is a number in sharpie pen, this number represents the family the plant is a member of, using the Bentham & Hooker system of ordering. Previously the collection was ordered by what the sample was. For example there would be a shelf for seed samples, rhizomes, cortex samples, leaves etc. This system didn’t make much sense for a person who wanted to view all of the parts of one plant, or one genus of plant. This led to us deciding it would be best to do a complete overhaul of the system of ordering and start anew.
The first task in the project was to clear the cupboards of all of the samples. One morning Jamie the apprentice, Bernard the volunteer and I emptied the cupboards. Using the numbers written on the jars, we placed samples from the same family together on some temporary shelving. 578 jars of samples later and we had finally cleared the cupboards.
The next task was to write down what exactly was in each jar. What the sample was, the common name of the plant, the plant’s Latin name etc. This data is to be entered into a spreadsheet so that when people want to look specific items in the collection they will know where it is located or if there are any other parts of the plant in the collection. We will the re-house the collection back into the cupboards in the new order.
Whilst the advent of modern medicine means the samples in the Materia Medica are no longer widely used, the samples are fascinating. The collection includes items such as: Poppy seeds (Papaver somniferum), Acacia Gum (Acacia sp.), Red Sandal Wood (Pterocarpus santalinus) , Grains of Paradise (Amomum melegueta) & Dragon’s Blood (Calamus draco).
Blog post by Josh, FLS placement student
It’s raining on the allotment volunteers again. Still, they’re a dedicated bunch and despite the drizzle, here they are this afternoon tidying up more nasturtiums, picking peas and finding hidden potatoes. We’ve now got some huge sunflowers planted up around the allotment courtesy of our friends at the Turing sunflower project at MOSI. This year Manchester mathematicians are hoping to study the spiral patterns visible in sunflower seedheads to see if the numbers match to the interesting Fibonnacci number sequence. Later in the Autumn we will be hosting sunflower spiral counting events. If you have grown a sunflower this summer why not get involved with this huge science project?