"Out of life's school of war: what does not destroy me, makes me stronger."
Friedrich Nietzsche, from The Twilight of the Idols "Maxims and Arrows" sec. 8
By Dave Stancliff/For The Times-Standard
“What doesn’t kill you, will make you stronger,” is a modern version of an old phrase I’ve always embraced. I don’t have the space here to list every time this philosophy has carried me through hard times.
Instead, to support this wise saying, I’m going to talk about three deadly poisons that also save lives.
A few months ago my brother-in-law Tom was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia. It’s the deadliest form you can get, but also the most treatable if caught early enough.
The treatment they gave him surprised me. Arsenic, which has a long and deadly history. Back in the 15th and 16th century it was the poison of choice for the infamous Borgias in Italy.
I was aware that arsenic was used as a pigment, a pesticide, and a sure way to kill someone, but to learn that Tom was getting it in a series of infusions caught me off guard. “You’ve got to be kidding!” I told my wife when she called and told me about this treatment plan.
He’s still getting arsenic infusions and will continue to receive them for a year. The positive news is he’s now in clinical remission. His future looks good.
The irony of something so deadly being a medical cure actually occurs with many minerals and plants.
Take Foxglove (Digitalis) a summer flower which was unfamiliar as a medicine to people in ancient times, but is now used in a number of medicines highly valued by cardiologists and is irreplaceable for many patients.
Unlike most poisonous plants used in medicine, Foxglove has no ancient myths or mysteries surrounding it. The first reports of it being used in medicine date back to 1542. A German physician and professor of botany, Leonard Fuchs, put together a list of herbs of the time and gave Foxglove it’s scientific name digitalis (meaning a small finger) because it’s blossoms were similar to a thimble.
Foxglove (pictured left) is a perennial herbaceous plant with long leaves. It’s native to West Europe (Ireland) and flourishes in many countries around the world. This is a common wild flower in California, Oregon and Washington. The whole plant is poisonous because every part of it contains the cardiac glycosides digitoxin (the most important one), gitoxin, digoxin and also some saponins, according to Websters New World Dictionary.
The Irish and the Scots both used the plant, but it first became officially noted in a London pharmacopoeia in 1722. Later it was recognized for it’s medicinal properties in Edinburgh in 1744, and Paris in 1756.
It was a trial and error situation as far as how much to give, and was administered in enormous doses as a laxative drug that led to many severe poisonings and deaths. Needless to say, it got a bad reputation and fell out of use for a long time.
Nowadays, Foxglove has been redeemed, and doctors know its safe limits.
The third deadly plant used in medicine (and other applications) is Atropa belladonna (pictured right) commonly known as Belladonna, Devil's Berries, Death Cherries or Deadly Nightshade. It’s native to Europe, North Africa and Western Asia. The foliage and berries are extremely toxic, containing tropane alkaloids. These toxins include scoploamine and hyoscyamine which cause a bizarre delirium and hallucinations. Belladonna is also used as pharmaceutical anticholinergics. The drug atropine is derived from the plant.
It has a long history of use as a medicine, cosmetic, and poison. Before the Middle Ages, it was used as an anesthetic for surgery; the ancient Romans used it as a poison (the wife of Emperor Augustus and the wife of Claudius both used it to murder contemporaries); and predating this, it was used to make poison tipped arrows, according to Wikipedia.
As It Stands, it still strikes me as odd to think the same substance I once put out in our garage to kill rats is now saving my friend and brother-in-law’s life!