Frontier Doc

Strychnine, Hollywood Style

Matt Dillon comes to the rescue again.


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In the Old West, the rancher’s cupboard contained a myriad of hazardous substances, ranging from rat poison and lye (caustic soda for making soap) to lead bars (to melt and cast into bullets) and patent medicines containing mercury, arsenic and even cocaine.

One of my favorite frontier “rat-killers” on that shelf (aside from arsenic, red squill and thallium sulfate) is the botanically-derived alkaloid compound strychnine.

In his 1845 classic A Treatise on Poisons, Dr. Robert Christison stated: “No poison is endowed with more destructive energy than Strychnia [strychnine].”

Describing strychnine’s effects during animal experiments, Christison indicated: “The symptoms are very uniform and striking. The animal becomes agitated and trembles, and is then seized with stiffness and starting of the limbs. These symptoms increase till at length it is attacked with a fit of violent general spasm, in which the head is bent back, the spine stiffened, the limbs extended and rigid, and the respiration checked by the fixing of the chest. The fit is then succeeded by an interval of calm, during which the senses are quite entire or unnaturally acute. But another paroxysm soon sets in, and then another and another, till at length a fit takes place more violent than any before it; and the animal perishes suffocated.”

Christison also describes the demise of a strychnine-poisoned human subject in terms similar to...

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