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, 36 (4), 366-73

Solanaceae III: Henbane, Hags and Hawley Harvey Crippen

  • PMID: 17526134

Solanaceae III: Henbane, Hags and Hawley Harvey Crippen

M R Lee. J R Coll Physicians Edinb.


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.

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