This section is from the book "A Practitioner's Handbook Of Materia Medica And Therapeutics", by Thos. S. Blair. Also available from Amazon: A Practitioner's handbook of Materia Medica and Therapeutics.
Alkaloids. An ex-president of the American Pharmaceutical Association has recently said: "The alkaloid, quinine, discovered by Gomes, of Lisbon, in 1812, was second only to morphine, discovered by Derosne in 1803. These two alkaloids, powerful in themselves, led thought in the direction of proximate basic plant principles, designed to replace established drugs. "Very rationally, if a person considers only certain phases of these two useful alkaloids, did men argue that a chemist had but to pick an active proximate principle out of each remedial drug. . . . That fad came in over one hundred years ago, and between the discovery of the first alkaloid, morphine, and the present date lies a threshed-out pile of straw that staggers him who thinks of wasted energies. Some grain has been discovered, it is true; some rich gifts to therapy, which are to be gratefully credited to the faddists' cause. But in the face of the amount of straw and blasted hopes that litter pharmacy's pages, it would seem as if reflective men might well ask, 'Is not a hundred years of time enough for men, with the record of great hopes and much disappointment before them, to be involved in a fallacy?' "The fact is, only a comparatively few plants contain or yield alkaloids in appreciable amount, and of the known alkaloids only a few are of any established therapeutic value whatever. Besides, many separated alkaloids are more harmful than useful, while the finer attributes of certain drugs cannot be obtained in the presence of the overpowering alkaloid."
Historically, the following extract from the "Encyclopedia Americana" covers the ground: "Prof. John King discovered and introduced the resins of podophyllum and macrotys, which, together with the alkaloids of hydrastis and sanguinaria, were afterwards prepared by Dr. William Stanley Merrell. These valuable agents, together with the oleoresins of iris and capsicum, attracted the attention of pharmacists. A host of indefinite compounds was added by others, and the market was flooded with what purported to be eclectic resinoids or concentrations. This heterogeneous class of pharmacals was denounced by Prof. King and others, who had sought to introduce only elegant and definite compounds.
This much-abused class of resinoids served, however, a temporarily useful purpose in the evolution of a more perfect materia medica. Of these preparations only those made after the methods of Dr. King and the alkaloids of hydrastis and sanguinaria have survived., and singularly are now mostly employed by practicians of the dominant school. Pharmaceutically, the substances we have discussed bear a definite relationship to tire drug, whereas resinoids, such as leptandrin, caulophyIIin, euonymin, stiIIingia, and others are about equivalent to purified powdered extracts. Aconitine, atropine, and other alkaloids are much more definite and stable substances than are these resinoids and concentrations. Some of the glucosides, such as digitoxin, are very active and are moderately definite chemically, whereas others are exceedingly disappointing.
Veratrum viride has yielded a number of substances of alkaloidal characteristics, probably. chemically-made fragments and not natural integral parts of veratrum. None of them is of established therapeutic value. Gelsemium sempervirens is another drug of like characteristics. The alkaloid, gelsemine, produces the poisonous effects of gelsemium, but the writer speaks advisedly and after very large use of gelsemium in asserting that it has no true therapeutic representative in alkaloidal form. The root of this plant should not even be dried before tincturing, let alone split up and manipulated by chemicals, when one wants the true therapeutic action of this most valuable remedy. If one cares to undertake a discouraging task let him investigate the chemistry, and especially the alkaloidal chemistry, of jaborandi. Chemists have devoted years to the study of the various species of jaborandi, and the distinctions and relationships of their chemical educts are still an enigma.
These matters are entered into not to discourage the proper use of alkaloids and more or less chemically allied proximate principles, but to direct attention to the fact that the recent craze over alkaloids and the effort to overdo alkaloidal medication illustrates the old saying, "there is nothing new under the sun," and, further, to combat the statement, so commonly and erroneously made, that in alkaloids we have sure and definite medicaments much preferable to the galenicals themselves. It is true, however, that the very excellent alkaloidal granules now marketed by a few houses are more definite and reliable medicaments than are the great body of the atrocious mixtures made of third-grade drugs and sold cheaply through irresponsible physicians' supply houses in the form of compressed tablets. Alkaloids have their legitimate place, and as emergency remedies or to employ in the initial stages of disease sharply marked by disturbances of innervation, circulation, and temperature, they are distinctly useful if cautiously and conservatively employed, but the faddist who employs them in the main in the regular conduct of his cases is one-sided and is not doing his duty by his patients.