History of ergot alkaloids from ergotism to ergometrine

Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol. 1995 Jun;60(2):109-16. doi: 10.1016/0028-2243(95)02104-z.


Epidemics of ergotism occurred frequently in the Middle Ages. They were a source of inspiration for artists and were popularly known as 'St. Anthony's Fire', resulting in gangrene, neurological diseases and death. It was caused by eating rye bread contaminated with the fungus claviceps purpurea. In 1582 it was described that a delivery could be hastened by administering a few spurs of the secale cornutum. The dosage was, however, very inaccurate resulting in frequent uterine ruptures. The nickname of the preparation of 'pulvis ad partum' was changed to 'pulvis ad mortem'. Therefore, after 1828 the ergot alkaloids were no longer used during delivery but only as a measure to prevent postpartum haemorrhage. From 1875 onwards many derivatives of ergot alkaloids were found. Dudley and Moir isolated ergometrine in 1932. It proved to have a very specific uterotonic action. However, because of severe and unpredictable side effects and the instability of the drug, ergometrine is not the drug of choice for either the prevention or the treatment of postpartum haemorrhage.

Publication types

  • Historical Article

MeSH terms

  • Ergonovine / history
  • Ergonovine / therapeutic use
  • Ergot Alkaloids / history*
  • Ergot Alkaloids / therapeutic use
  • Ergotism / history*
  • Female
  • History, 15th Century
  • History, 16th Century
  • History, 18th Century
  • History, 19th Century
  • History, 20th Century
  • History, Ancient
  • History, Medieval
  • Humans
  • Labor, Induced
  • Postpartum Hemorrhage / prevention & control
  • Pregnancy


  • Ergot Alkaloids
  • Ergonovine