Field of Science

St. Ignatius' Beans: Strychnine and herbal remedies

Before chemists became adept at synthesizing and purifying single molecules, materia medica relied heavily on plant based materials.  The chemicals in plants are not uniformly innocuous, or safe at any dose, a point I tried to make in this article at Slate a couple of weeks ago.  A case in point:  St. Ignatius' beans.

Last fall, I was digging through a 1903 organic chemistry text (looking for examples of eponyms for this article), when a familiar name caught my eye. What was St. Ignatius doing in a chemistry textbook, an organic one at that?  Jesuits, I could understand (quinine is extracted from cinchona, also called Jesuits' bark), but Ignatius (the founder of the Jesuits) himself?

"Strychnine, C21H22O2N2, is found in St. Ignatius' bean..."  What is a violent poison doing in a bean named for Ignatius?  Despite the fact that I was up against an impending writing deadline and had a couple of dozen exams to grade, I had to know.

Faba Sancti Ignatii were first described by an Austrian Jesuit living in the Philippines in the 17th century, George Kamel, S.J. (his description was published in the Philosophical Transactions in 1699 - and yes, I looked up the Latin version).  Later authors speculated the plant was named for Ignatius because of its many medicinal virtues (which they do not list).  At the turn of the last century strychnine was part of the US Pharmacopoeia, prescribed as a stimulant — it was implicated in a early Olympic doping scandal — and for gastric upset; in the Phillipines it was often (more sensibly) the bean was worn on a string around the neck for protection against various diseases. These days it forms the basis for a homeopathic nostrum prescribed for grief and melancholia, particularly when associated with an abundance of tears.


A version of this post appeared at Quantum Theology.

4 comments:

  1. Cool beans! As my younger sister used to say.

    Great story and I would have had to drop everything and know too. The internet is full of rabbit holes.

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  2. Great piece! I have been thinking about the etymology of chemical names ever since I read your piece in slate, especially the part about "spirits of feathers" and an "extract of willow!" A few years ago I received a free t-shirt at a product show that says in big letters RNA: life is twisted. When I put on that shirt the other day I had your slate article in my mind so I looked up the etymology of the word "Ribose" - that R in RNA comes from an English version of the German "Arabinose" which comes from "Gum Arabic" which Ribose was first isolated (probably the sap of the Acacia senegal). So here we have another major chemical named on a whim after a plant that happened to grow in an area where Arab people had settled. The events that lead to the naming of chemicals may seem unscientific in a way but I think they may serve to humanize chemistry.

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    1. I enjoy following the tracks that the people and places related to chemistry leave in our nomenclature!

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