All that 32-year-old Albert Hoffman wanted to do in 1938 was synthesize a chemical compound that would stimulate the respiratory and circulatory systems. He had gone to work for Sandoz, a Swiss chemical company, in 1929, after graduation from the University of Zurich. Sandoz, founded in 1886, had started out manufacturing dyes and, later, saccharin. There wasn’t even a formal pharmaceutical department until 1917, when professor Arthur Stoll isolated an active substance called aotamine from ergot, a fungus found in tainted rye that had been used as a folk medicine for generations.
In its natural form and in quantity, ergot was a deadly poison and a scourge responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people over many centuries. In 857 in what is now Germany, a contemporary accounting of the events of the year recorded that “a great plague of swollen blisters consumed the people by a loathsome rot, so that their limbs were loosened and fell off before death.”
Historians now attribute this and similar events throughout early history to long-term exposure to infected grains, a condition known as St. Anthony’s fire, after the French monastic order that devoted itself to caring for the plague’s victims. Ergot was not suspected as the cause until the late 17th century. Eventually, ergotism’s toxic effects were classified into two categories: gangrenous ergotism and convulsive ergotism. The description of the symptoms on a University of Hawaii botany website is enough to permanently put a person off rye bread:
Convulsive ergotism is characterized by nervous dysfunction, where the victim is twisting and contorting their body in pain, trembling and shaking, and wryneck, more or less fixed twisting of the neck, which seems to simulate convulsions or fits. In some cases, this is accompanied by muscle spasms, confusions, delusions and hallucinations …
Some believe that the advent of these gruesome symptoms without a known cause, especially the convulsive symptoms—which, along with hallucinations, sometimes included mania and psychosis—led to accusations of witchcraft, followed by witch-hunting hysterias such as the famous Salem witch trials in 1692 and 1693. Studies have even correlated years of rye scarcity—suggesting an increased willingness to consume tainted rye—with years of abundant witchcraft accusations.