Inebriantia

Publication Year: 
2010

Image retrieved from upload.wikimedia.org on April 21st, 2014
Image retrieved from upload.wikimedia.org on April 22nd, 2014.

The eighteenth century was the great age of systematizers, and none greater than Carl Linnaeus. Around the time that Dover's Powder first appeared in British grocery stores, he was developing the system of botanical classification that would gradually become the modern standard, and through which his name has been immortalized. Yet this was only the beginning for “God's registrar', as he called himself, a man born with a sacred mission to describe and catalogue nature in all its forms. In 1749 he publishes his Materia medica, tabulating the names and synonyms of all known medicinal plants, their countries of origin and habitats, the techniques for their preservation and their doses and pharmaceutical effects. In 1753 he finally completed his Species plantarum, a two-volume work that described over 8,000 plants in unprecedented detail; and in 1762, during the final phase of his life as the presiding genius of the University of Uppasala in his native Sweden, and among monographs on everything from lemmings to leprosy, ants to electrotherapy, he published a short work entitled Inebriantia, the first recognizably modern inventory of mind-altering drugs.
Its first modern contribution, signalled on the title page, is a clear definition of the substances in question. By 'inebriants' Linnaeus refers not to all drugs, but specifically to 'those stimulants which affect the nervous system in such a way that there is a change not only in its motor but in its sensory functions': essentially the definition of psychoactive or consciousness-altering drugs still used in pharmacology today. Although he admitted frankly that there was as yet no satisfying physiological explanation for how these drugs worked, he was beginning to notice structural commonalities between them. Most of them, for example, had a bitter taste, a property that would be explained by the alkaloid chemistry of the century to come.
Inebriantia was also modern in its global scope. In addition to the familiar European flora of poppies and nightshades, Linnaeus presented many drugs from the East: preparations of cannabis including Turkish hashish pills or the Persian drink known as bangue; the seeds of the Syrian rue, Paganum harmala, now known to contain the same alkaloids as the ayahuasca vine of the Amazon; even the combination of betel leaf, areca nut and lime from the far Orient. The drugs of the New World, such as tobacco, were also represented and Linnaeus had previously written monographs on coffee, tea and chocolate. With this global perspective he was able to observe that 'almost no nations are without intoxicants'. The familiar European triumvirate of alcohol, poppy and night shade could now, for the first time, be compared with and situated among wealth of exotic alternatives.
CarlLinnaeus
In other respects, however, Linnaeus's work strikes the modern reader as curious. Drugs are classified into three types: natural, artificial (alcohol, especially distilled spirits), and mythical. In the last, the drugs of classical antiququity such as nectar, nepenthes and moly are considered as methodically as the rest, with their properties carefully enumerated. Linnaeus also turns to mythology to describe the effects of drugs. The reader is presented with the image of an old man to whom successive drinks are offered by magical figures such as Medea; each one takes him back further through the seven ages of life, the correct dose restoring him to his prime before an overdose reduces him to a helpless infant. This image is Linnaeus's grand metaphor for the action of stimulants and sedatives; their powers over the nervous system allow us to speed up and slow down our metabolisms, and thereby change our bodies instantly from old to young through chemical means.
Other classical myths illustrate the dangers of drugs in the Inebriantia. The sorceress Circe, whose potion reduced Odysseus's men to beasts, stands as a timeless warning of the mental and physical degradation to which the uncontrolled appetite for intoxication can lead. Linnaeus's particular focus was on distilled liquor; he had spent much time botanizing in the wild north of Europe, where he had frequently been appalled by the excessive spirit-drinking he witnessed in remote villages. Several of his students, too had succumbed to alcoholic excess. Within the newly discovered global cornucopia of drugs, strong alcohol seemed to him by far the most destructive. He was suspicious of coffee, which in his opinion drained vigour and induced early senility, but he was a heavy smoker, and recommended tobacco as a weapon against infection.
Linnaeus's exhaustive catalogue of drugs would, however, soon be out of date. The passion for classification that he epitomized was continuing to expand the list: most conspicuously via global exploration, but also by closer inspection of Europe's indigenous flora. On 3 October 1799, a doctor named Everard Brande was summoned to the London home of a poor family who were in the grip of a mysterious and perhaps fatal toxic crisis. The father, whom Brande identified only as 'J.S.', had begun the day in his customary fashion in the autumn by going down to Green Park at dawn to gather small field mushrooms which he brought back and cooked up 'with the common additions'-flour, water and salt-in an iron saucepan to make a morning broth for his wife and four children. But an hour or so after their breakfast the family began to suffer strange and alarming symptoms. 'J.S.' developed vertigo, losing his balance, black spots spreading across his vision; the rest of the family complained of poisoning, their stomachs cramping and extremities becoming cold. He left the house to summon help, but within a few hundred yards was found in a a confused state, having already forgotten where he was going and why, and the doctor was called.
By the time Dr Brande arrived, the family's symptoms were rising and falling in giddy waves. He noted their pulses and breathing intensifying and fading, periodically almost returning to normal before launching into another crisis. All of them were seized with the idea that they were dying, except for the eight-year-old son, Edward, whose symptoms were the strangest of all. Edward had eaten a large portion of the mushrooms and 'was attacked with fits of immoderate laughter', from which neither the threats of his father or mother could restrain him. Between laughing fits he exhibited 'a great degree of stupor, from which he was roused by being called or shaken, but immediately relapsed'. The pupils of his staring eyes were the size of saucers, and he would speak only nonsense; 'when roused and interrogated as to it, he answered indifferently, yes, or no, as he did to every other question, evidently without any relation to what was asked'. Dr Brande treated these bizarre and frightening symptoms with emetics and fortifying tonics, and it was to these that the family's recovery was attributed when they returned to normality several hours later. Brande regarded the incident as exceptional enough to write a full description for the Medical and Physical Journal, on the grounds that these 'deleterious effects of a very common species of agaric, not hitherto suspected to be poisonous' should be made known to doctors and public alike.
The history of the liberty cap of 'magic' mushroom in Britain and Europe is, like that of the nightshades, a contested one. By analogy with other cultures, particularly those of the Americas, knowledge of its hallucinogenic effects might be presumed to date back into prehistory, but the proof for this remains elusive, and there is much suggestive evidence to the contrary. In Dioscorides and the early herbals that followed him, fungi were regarded as a single species with some edible forms, but essentially putrid and unhealthy. There are scattered early references to toadstools that cause delirium, and Brande's is not the first report of an accidental intoxication; there was a generalized understanding that some mushrooms might cause hallucinations, but this was taken as simply another example of their well-known poisonous nature. Given that the liberty cap is one small mushroom among many species that fruit in the same conditions, and its effects are not noticeable unless several are ingested together, it is entirely possible that its distinctive properties were not recognized until modern times.
Brande, too, was unaware of the exact species of mushroom that had caused the family’s symptoms, but in the scientific climate of the Enlightenment such details were now being scrutinized more closely. His account of the incident caught the attention of the botanical artist James Sowerby, who was just completing an illustrated guide to English Fungi and delayed publication to include an illustration of the small mushrooms he suspected to be responsible. During the nineteenth century, however, Sowerby's identification was forgotten; the liberty cap was confused with other species and its hallucinogenic properties conflated with those of the far more distinctive red-and-white fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), whose use by Siberian shamans was becoming known in the West through the accounts of Polish and Russian travellers. The psychedelic counterculture of the 1960s unfolded in ignorance that the liberty cap was a hallucinogen. It was not until the late 1960s that Brande's mushroom was conclusively identified as Psilocybe semilaceata, a European native species containing the recently discovered alkaloid psilocybin, and matched to Sowerby's plate, and only in the early 1970s that 'magic mushrooms were incorporated into modern drug culture.

pp. 67-72 High Society by Mike Jay (2010)

Inebriantia
Carl Linnaeus
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