Solanaceae IV: Atropa belladonna, deadly nightshade

J R Coll Physicians Edinb. 2007 Mar;37(1):77-84.


The Deadly Nightshade, Atropa belladonna, is a plant surrounded by myth, fear and awe. In antiquity, the Greeks and the Romans knew that it contained a deadly poison. In medieval times, it was widely used by witches, sorcerors and professional poisoners. Linnaeus later codified its remarkable properties as the genus Atropa, the Fate that slits the thin spun life and the species belladonna because of its power to dilate the pupils. In the 1830s, the pure alkaloid I-atropine was isolated from the plant. This proved to be a significant tool in the study of the autonomic nervous system leading to the identification of acetylcholine as an important neurotransmitter in mammals. When pure atropine became available, it caused a large number of deaths, whether by accident, suicide or homicide.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Atropa belladonna*
  • Atropine / history*
  • Atropine / isolation & purification
  • Atropine / poisoning
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • Humans
  • Mythology*


  • Atropine