In August of 1951, a strange epidemic struck the sleepy little town of Pont-Saint-Esprit in France. Over the course of a single day, hundreds of people lost their minds.
A little boy tried to strangle his grandmother. A man realized he was an airplane then jumped out a window and broke his legs. Another man tried to drown himself to destroy the snakes that were eating him from inside. Within hours, the nearest asylum was overflowing with lunatics — men, women, children, all of them gripped by some strange madness, shrieking, laughing, gibbering, weeping hysterically. They cried that they were being tormented by demons, they were burning alive, their brains had turned to lead, they were sprouting flowers from their stomachs. It wasn’t long before the asylum ran out of straitjackets. Most of the victims eventually recovered their sanity, but not before five people had died.
The culprit behind the bizarre events in Pont-Saint-Esprit was a fungus called ergot that can grow on rye. The fungus produces a highly toxic brew of hallucinogens with very unpleasant effects; the most important of them is called ergotamine. Ergot poisoning is called ergotism, and improvements in agriculture have made it rare in modern times. Back in the Middle Ages when ergotism was more common, however, it was known as St. Anthony’s Fire, and often it was blamed on witchcraft (like anything else medieval priests couldn’t explain).
But the importance of ergot goes far beyond medieval witch trials. For ergotamine can be hydrolyzed or broken down to yield a compound called lysergic acid. And in the late 1930s, Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann chemically modified this compound to make lysergic acid diethylamide or LSD.
Just like the compounds in the ergot fungus, LSD is an extremely potent hallucinogen, but the similarities end there. Unlike ergotamine, it has relatively low toxicity. Moreover, unlike all the other drugs we’ve looked at so far (heroin, meth, coke) it’s completely non-addictive. Nonetheless, governments around the world have banned it for reasons that remain unclear.
The chemistry of LSD is fascinating and complex. In this post and the next I’ll look at just a few cool facts about LSD: what happens when you put it under a black light, what happens to it in your bloodstream, and what happens when you put it in a basic solution.