DOCTOR'S VIEW ARCHIVE

St. Anthony's Fire -- Ergotism

PARIS, October, 2000 -- This reporter had the good fortune recently to visit the French village of Lavardin (population 200 plus or minus a few souls) in the valley of the little Loir River. Forty minutes from Paris by the bullet TGV train, this tiny village has a church, Saint Jenest, that dates from the 12th century. The church is in a simple romanesque style and contains extraordinary frescoes and stone carvings. One of the frescoes depicts St. Anthony and sufferers from St. Anthony's fire.

The History of Saint Anthony's Fire

On 15 August 1951 one in twenty of the 4000 inhabitants of another village in France called Pont Saint Esprit (Bridge of the Holy Spirit) went mad. They had hallucinations, writhed in agony in their beds, vomited, ran crazily in the streets and suffered terrible burning sensations in their limbs.

The madness was quickly diagnosed. They were suffering from St Anthony's Fire, a dreaded illness that was common in the Middle Ages. The cause was poisoning from a fungus (ergot) that grows on rye grass. The fungus contaminated the rye flour used in making bread.

Ergot contains a chemical that makes the sufferers go berserk and causes gangrene of the hands and feet due to constriction of blood supply to the extremities. If it is not treated (and this was not possible in the Middle Ages), victims had the sensation of being burned at the stake, before their fingers, toes, hands and feet dropped off.

A Masterpiece Born of Saint Anthony's Fire

Matthias Grunewald's 16th-century Isenheim Altarpiece glorified suffering and offered comfort to those afflicted with a dread disease.