The early toxicology of physostigmine: a tale of beans, great men and egos

Alex Proudfoot
Toxicological Reviews 2006, 25 (2): 99-138
Mid-19th century European visitors to Old Calabar, an eastern province of Nigeria, could not avoid becoming aware of native belief in the power of the seeds of a local plant to determine whether individuals were innocent or guilty of some serious misdemeanour. The seeds were those of a previously unknown legume and soon referred to as the ordeal bean of Old Calabar. Their administration was known locally as 'chop nut'. Missionaries who arrived in Calabar in 1846 estimated that chop nut caused some 120 deaths annually and documented the course of poisoning. The latter information and samples of the beans rapidly found their way to Scotland, the home of the missionaries' parent church, explaining why the early toxicology of physostigmine, quantitatively the most important of three active alkaloids in the beans, has such strong Scottish, predominantly Edinburgh, associations. However, it was 1855 before the first of many medical scientists, Robert Christison, a toxicologist of repute, investigated the effects of the beans to the extent of eating part of one himself and documenting the moderate, if not severe, consequences. A further 6 years were to pass before Balfour's comprehensive botanical description of the bean plant appeared. It was he who named it Physostigma venenosum. It was not so long until the next event, one that sparked more intensive and international interest in the beans. In 1863 a young Edinburgh ophthalmologist, Argyll Robertson, published a paper announcing the arrival of the first agent that constricted the pupil of the eye. The drug was an extract of Calabar beans and Argyll Robertson openly admitted that he had been alerted to its unusual property by his physician friend, Thomas Fraser. A minor flood of contributions on the ophthalmic uses of bean extracts followed in the medical press in the next few months; those on their systemic toxicity were fewer. Fraser's MD thesis, submitted to the University of Edinburgh in 1862 and clearly pre-dating Argyll Robertson's involvement with the beans, became generally available a few weeks after the appearance of Argyll Robertson's paper and was the first to address in detail the features of systemic administration of extracts of the beans. A major problem facing all early researchers of the beans was that of deciding how best to extract their active principle, a task made all the more difficult because bioassays were the only means of determining if the toxin was being tracked. The stability of extracts was an inevitable issue and the active principle finally became known as physostigma or physostigmine, after the botanical name of the parent plant. The features of physostigmine toxicity were soon exhaustively documented, both in animals and humans. How they were mediated was another matter altogether. Fraser maintained that muscular paralysis, the cardinal feature, was the result of depression of the spinal cord and was generally, but far from unanimously, supported. Of those who had reservations, Harley was the most prominent. He concluded that paralysis was secondary to effects on the motor nerve endings and, in so doing, came nearest to present-day knowledge at a time when acetylcholine, cholinesterases and cholinesterase inhibitors were not even imagined. Differences of opinion on the mode of action of the beans were to be expected and it is hardly surprising that they were not resolved. No standard formulation of physostigmine was available so the potency of those used would have varied from one investigator to another, the range of animals experimented upon was large while the number used by any researcher was commonly in single figures, more readily available cold-blooded creatures seemed less sensitive to physostigmine toxicity than warm-blooded ones and only Fraser determinedly pursued an answer; in general, the others made one foray into bean research then turned their attentions elsewhere. The same problems would beset other aspects of bean research. While Fraser did not get as close to the mode of action of physostigmine as Harley, he reigns supreme when it comes to antagonism between physostigmine and atropine. By this time, the 1870s had dawned and although the concept of antagonism between therapeutic agents was not new, it had little, if any, reliable scientific foundation. This was about to change; antagonism was becoming exciting and rational. Fraser's firm belief that physostigmine and atropine were mutually antagonistic at a physiological level was contrary to the conventional wisdom of his contemporaries. This alone would earn him a place in history but his contribution goes much, much further. Unlike any other at the time, he investigated it with scientific rigour, experimenting on only one species, ensuring as best he could the animals were the same weight, adjusting the doses of drugs he gave them for bodyweight, determining the minimum lethal dose of each drug before assessing their antagonistic effects, adopting a single, incontrovertible endpoint for efficacy and carrying out sufficient numbers of experiments to appear convincing in a later era where the statistical power of studies is all-important. To crown it all, he presented his results graphically. Fraser never claimed to have discovered the antagonism between physostigmine and atropine. Bartholow in 1873 did, based on work done in 1869. But his data hardly justify it. If anyone can reasonably claim this particular scientific crown it is an ophthalmologist, Niemetschek, working in Prague in 1864. His colleague in the same discipline, Kleinwächter, was faced with treating a young man with atropine intoxication. Knowing of the contrary actions of the two drugs on the pupil, Niemetschek suggested that Calabar bean extract might be useful. Kleinwächter had the courage to take the advice and his patient improved dramatically. Clearly, this evidence is nothing more than anecdotal, but the ophthalmologists were correct and, to the present day, physostigmine has had an intermittent role in the management of anticholinergic poisoning. The converse, giving atropine to treat poisoning with cholinesterase inhibitors, of which physostigmine was the first, has endured more consistently and remains standard practice today. It is salutary to realise that the doses and dosage frequency of atropine together with the endpoints that define they are adequate were formulated by Fraser and others a century and a half ago.

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