A Scary (true) Story

29 Jan A Scary (true) Story

Let me share with you a scary but true story of foodborne illness:

In 1951, a terrible outbreak of foodborne illness occurred in a small village in France called Pont St. Esprit. This tiny town was named after an old bridge that spanned the Rhone River. That year France had experienced one of the wettest summers in a very long time. The conditions were ideal for the development of a tiny fungus, Claviceps purpurea. In mid-August, one of town’s two bakers noticed that the new batch of flour he used to make baguettes (long thin loaves of French bread) was slightly grayer in color than the flour he normally used. Since flour distribution was a government monopoly at the time, he felt he had no choice but to use the flour he was given.

Within one day, more than 200 of the villagers who had purchased his baguettes, became very ill with what appeared to be food poisoning. Several people began to complain of lightheadedness, nausea, vomiting and diarrhea. In spite of the typical summer heat, people felt like they were freezing. Soon people started going berserk, screaming through the night that they were being attacked by terrible apparitions. The hallucinations made people jump out of windows, claiming they were on fire or that they could fly like airplanes.

The likely cause of this was the baguettes with the ergot-contaminated flour. Symptoms of both the gangrenous and the convulsive forms of this infection combined to produce an epidemic that was so bizarre and frightening that the outbreak captured newspaper headlines for weeks. It took some time before consulting physicians brought in to analyze the problem noticed a resemblance between the ongoing difficulties in the town and the epidemics of ergot poisoning that occurred more than a century before. Others, including the police, thought they were witnessing some form of mercury contamination (like Mad Hatter’s disease). But the laboratory/ microbiology data eventually pointed to this fungus infection. Before this incident was over, hundreds of villagers suffered weeks of unbearable sleeplessness and hallucinations and four of them died agonizing deaths. It was months before life in that village returned to normal.

And….research suggests that some of the women and girls tried in the Salem witch trials of 1692 may have been suffering hallucinations due to the effects of convulsive ergotism – and the neurotoxins produced by the fungus – Claviceps purpurea.

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