Plant Intoxicants by Baron Ernst von Bibra

Plant IntoxicantsOriginally published in Germany, in 1855, under the title ‘Die Narkotischen Genuβmittel und der Mensch’, this edition of Baron Ernst von Bibra’s ‘Plant Intoxicants’ was published in 1995 by Healing Arts Press. The book is a pioneering study of psychoactive plants and their role in society and was translated by Hedwig-Schleiffer, with a foreword by Martin Haseneier and technical notes by Jonathan Ott.

The author, Baron Ernst von Bibra (1806-1878), is an interesting character. The son of an old noble family, he studied law at the University of Würzburg but soon gave it up to pursue his own interests in medicine and chemistry. A charismatic character, who supposedly fought no less than forty-nine duels, he was taken to the collection of experiences and was not till he was a much older man than he began to document and publish. Having installed his own chemistry laboratory, he began to contribute to the subject, but still desired adventure and travelled around South America in 1849 for a year and a half. Returning to Germany, in the midst of the scientific revolution, he continued his private, scientific work, publishing the present book in 1855. In it, he writes:

            “It is [the] monstrous number of consumers itself that has induced me to understand the present compilation, for the importance of the subject manifests itself in these millions.

“It is to be hoped that physiological chemistry, to whose purview belong the most interesting investigations, will seize vigorously upon this field without delay, and that it will become possible by such research to elucidate at least some aspect of these so abundantly enigmatic phenomena, which parade daily before our very eyes…” (Bibra 1995, xv)

Of course, since the publication of this book, there have been many chemical and cultural surveys of ethnobotanicals—Louis Lewin’s Phantastica (1924) and Plants of the Gods (1979) by Richard Evans Schultes et al. for example—but there existence only goes to underline the importance of this particularly early tome. The seventeen plants, or plant derived substances, are still very well known to us today and play central roles in most of our lives. To many readers now, post the psychedelic insurrection, who have become accustomed to designer drugs and all manner of number and letter combinations, those chosen by Bibra seem humble. However, it is this sort of foundation that was necessary to begin the field of research and, indeed, the debate over the role of ‘intoxicants’ in society.

Among the common plant intoxicants, ones that are still used widely today, Bibra discusses coffee, tea, chocolate, hashish and tobacco. Their ubiquity across the globe has made them beyond striking. They often pass unnoticed as drugs through the mouths of swathes of men, woman and children: “Instinct prompted man to use tea, in the same way that it prompted him to use coffee. Since time immemorial, however, millions of people have used both beverages without being the least bit aware of the effects that these beverages have on their nervous systems” (Bibra 1995, 47). In this respect, the perspective in Bibra’s book must have come as some surprise to unacquainted, perhaps pious, readers who supped their morning drink. Aside from contemporary cultural uses, Bibra has a good attempt at relaying the history of these substances, although some of the information has since proven to be erroneous; Hassan Ben-Sabbah’s use of hashish for example.

Of particular interest to this reviewer are his chapters on Amanita muscaria (the Fly agaric mushroom) and Datura (or Thornapple). Bibra discusses the use of Fly agaric among various Siberian tribes like Tungusians and Kamchadals and the ways in which is consumed, including the drinking of urine from an individual who has eaten it. He says, like hashish and opium, that it stimulates the imagination and that its constituent chemicals are as yet unknown (still a debate topic today in many respects.) His challenge to the reader is to discover whether the efficacy is produced in European Fly agarics also, while also noting that it can vary mushroom to mushroom. In regard to Datura, and no doubt stimulated by his travels in South America, he discusses its use by “old Indian priests.” Yet, while noting its existence in Europe, he fails to mention any possible connection with the witch’s fly-ointment—nor is there mention of other nightshades, This is, perhaps, because there was no contemporary use that he was aware of.

The chapter on Papaver somniferum (the opium poppy) is of particular depth and he quotes at length from a number of doctors on the subject, while conspicuously avoiding Thomas de Quincey (most likely because he was not a man of science and, indeed, maligned doctors in his classic Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1921)). Various tables are included that examine the chemical breakdown of opium and sections on morphine, codeine and alike follow. In the end, this book remains an important cultural artefact. Although the chemical and cultural understandings of the plant intoxicants he discusses have moved on, it still remains a valuable text to the drug historian and, moreover, it is a genre defining pharmacography.

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