This section is from the book "A Treatise On Therapeutics, And Pharmacology Or Materia Medica Vol2", by George B. Wood. Also available from Amazon: Part 1 and Part 2.
Ergot is the diseased seed of Secale cereale or common rye, irritated into morbid growth by the existence in and about its germ of a microscopic fungus, which is developed along with it, and intermingles its filaments with the substance of the grain. This plant, which was first fully investigated and described by the late Mr. Edwin Quekett, and was named by him Ergotaetia abortifaciens, consists of a vast number of delicate filaments, interspersed with minute granules or spo-ridia, which envelop the germ, giving it a whitish investment, extending overall its appendages, and imparting to the whole flower an aspect as if mildewed; but, when the grain projects from its coverings, the white coating is not carried with it, and the filaments and sporidia disappear. The ergot occupies the place of the normal seed in the glume or husk, beyond which it projects considerably, often for much the larger portion of its length. Sometimes there are only one or two of these diseased grains in each head of rye, sometimes they are very numerous; but generally the number is from three to twelve. They should be collected a little before harvest.
The grains are of various size, from one-third of an inch to an inch and a half long, from half a line to three lines in thickness, obscurely three-sided, longitudinally furrowed, tapering from the middle towards each end, and somewhat curved, so as to resemble the spur of a cock, from which they derived the name of spurred rye or secale cor-nutum. They are brittle yet somewhat flexible, of a dark-violet almost black colour externally, but occasionally somewhat glaucous, and internally yellowish-white, or of a light violet colour. They have a smell somewhat resembling, when they are in mass, that of spoiled fish, and a feeble, but disagreeable and slightly acrid taste. Water and alcohol extract their virtues, which are impaired by boiling.
Active Constituents. Many attempts have been made to isolate the active principle of ergot, but with no satisfactory success. A fixed oil, separated from it by ether, was found to possess its virtues, but has been shown not to be, but only to contain the active matter. A principle was discovered by Wiggers, and called by him ergotin, which is not without activity, but certainly has not been determined to represent the whole virtues of the medicine. Dr. F. L. Winkler has obtained from ergot a volatile organic alkali, which he has named secalin (identical with propylamia), and which he supposes to exist in the medicine combined with the ergotin of Wiggers. M. Bonjean believes that there are two principles in ergot; one which he calls ergotin, but not the substance to which Wiggers gives that name; the other a fixed oil; in the former of which the medical virtues reside, in the latter the poisonous properties. Mr. Wm. T. Wenzell, of Wisconsin, believes that he has discovered two new alkaloids in ergot, which he names respectively ergotina and ecbolina, which, with the propylamia discovered by .Winkler, constitute the active ingredients of the medicine. (See U.S. Dispensatory, 12th ed., page 308.) in this confusion, it is necessary to wait for more light, and, in the mean time, to use the medicine in its well-understood forms.
Preservation. Ergot is liable to be injured by time, especially when exposed to air and moisture. it is also apt to be attacked and destroyed by worms. But, if kept perfectly dry and excluded from the air, it may be preserved long with little change. Camphor is said to protect it against worms. Under ordinary circumstances, it is better kept in the whole state than in powder. The best plan, however, is to collect it every year. There is no doubt that much of the difference of opinion, as to the powers of ergot, is owing to the use of parcels of the drug in different states of preservation.
In moderate medicinal doses, say of fifteen or twenty grains, ergot produces no sensible effects in health, at least upon the male subject. in women, not pregnant, it is said sometimes to cause bearing-down pains, dependent on its influence upon the uterus; but, in the pregnant state, it evinces a strong tendency to produce painful contraction of that organ. if the dose be increased to half a drachm or a drachm, it will, in both sexes, occasion some degree of nausea, and more or less cerebral disturbance, attended generally with some diminution in the frequency and force of the pulse. in still larger doses, of from one to two drachms or more, it evinces decided narcotic properties. With nausea and a disposition to vomit, and sometimes actual vomiting, there are now dilatation of the pupils, giddiness, a feeling as of intoxication, heaviness or pain in the head, and not unfrequently more or less drowsiness or stupor. Sometimes irregular and involuntary muscular contractions have been noticed; but they are not common symptoms. The dilatation of the pupil is an ordinary phenomenon. it is usually, however, moderate, and unattended with disorder of vision. Sometimes the bowels are disturbed, and evidences of gastro-intestinal irritation or inflammation are said to have been presented in some instances; but this is certainly not a necessary or even common result. Sensations of itching, numbness, or fatigue are occasionally felt in the limbs. The circulation is usually depressed, and sometimes greatly so. in female subjects, the uterine contractions are induced much more quickly than the nervous symptoms here described, and do not continue so long. What dose would be sufficient to prove fatal in man has not been ascertained; nor can I find that any instance of death has been traced to a single dose, however large. Quantities varying from two to eight drachms are said to have been taken without very alarming effects. Dr. Wright found three ounces necessary to kill a small dog.
From the long-continued use of ergot, in considerable quantities, the most serious consequences have ensued. Fatal epidemics have occasionally prevailed in limited districts in various parts of the Continent of Europe, in Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, and France, which are supposed to have been traced to the use, by the people of these districts, of rye bread, prepared from flour largely mingled with this morbid product. These epidemics have presented very diversified phenomena, some being characterized by symptoms of malignant typhus, others by convulsive affections, and others, again, by gangrene of the limbs. But epidemics of typhous diseases frequently occur, without any connection whatever with ergot; and others of a convulsive character have been repeatedly described, of which the malignant spinal-meningitis, which has of late years proved so fatal, is a striking example. it is altogether possible, therefore, that the epidemics of these kinds, which have been ascribed to ergot, may have had another origin; especially as no experiments, which have been made with this substance, would lead to the supposition that it could produce such effects. The same, however, cannot be said of the gangrenous cases.