Cookie policy: This site uses cookies (small files stored on your computer) to simplify and improve your experience of this website. Cookies are small text files stored on the device you are using to access this website. For more information please take a look at our terms and conditions. Some parts of the site may not work properly if you choose not to accept cookies.


Subscribe or Register

Existing user? Login


How plants can heal or kill

Looking at the medical uses and poisonous effects of drugs derived from plants.

The contribution of plants to the management of disease cannot be underestimated. In the past they were an important source of pharmacologically active compounds with many modern medicines directly or indirectly derived in this way (e.g. aspirin). Despite the modern reliance on synthetic chemistry to design and produce drugs, 11% of those considered as basic and essential by the World Health Organization (WHO) are still of flowering plant origin.

This book, published by the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, tells the story of 16 historically important plants and their associated drugs, some of which are still on the WHO list.

Michael Lee, the author of this history book, was formerly a professor of clinical pharmacology and therapeutics at the University of Edinburgh. Following a distinguished research career studying hypertension, he turned his attention to poisonous plants.

The chapters start with full colour plates of the plants, show the chemical structure of the drugs derived from them and introduce the main dramatis personae involved — both heroes and blaggards. The medical uses and poisonous effects of the drugs are also described. All the iconic ‘A-listers’ are here: curare, deadly nightshade, foxglove, henbane, mandrake, etc, together with some less expected examples, including the crocus, snowdrop and potato.

Among the more modern tales of murder, suicide, trial by ordeal and accidental poisoning, include:

  • ‘The infamous case of Hawley Harvey Crippen’ relates how the American homeopath doctor murdered his wife in 1909 by administering considerably more than infinitesimal doses of hyoscine.
  • ‘The Edinburgh poisoner’ tells of a man who, in 1994, attempted to poison his wife with atropine.
  • ‘The torso in the Thames’ describes a horrific crime in 2001 that involved the administration of calabar bean, an African ordeal poison, to the victim before his demise.

However, not all the drugs described are potentially sinister. The European yew, the source of a powerful anti-cancer agent, and Peruvian bark, the first effective treatment for malaria, are also included, as is the story of William Withering’s work on digitalis.

The range of figures, diagrams and photographs used throughout the text complements the content perfectly and bring the subject to life. The book concludes with a helpful glossary of chemical compounds, an excellent bibliography and an index.

This book will please pharmacists at all stages in their career. Younger colleagues will find it a fascinating commentary on the secundum artem of medicine in a disappearing era, while old ‘lags’ (like me) may find that some of the facts prompt fond memories of undergraduate pharmacognosy classes.

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2015.20068920

Have your say

For commenting, please login or register as a user and agree to our Community Guidelines. You will be re-directed back to this page where you will have the ability to comment.

Recommended from Pharmaceutical Press

  • Handbook of Drug Administration via Enteral Feeding Tubes

    Handbook of Drug Administration via Enteral Feeding Tubes

    All you need to know about prescribing or administering drugs via enteral feeding tubes. Over 400 drug monographs as well as facts to inform clinical decision making.

    £54.00Buy now
  • Prescribing Medicines for Children

    Prescribing Medicines for Children

    Prescribing Medicines for Children is designed to improve understanding on all aspects of paediatric prescribing, from the development of suitable drugs through to their practical administration.

    £60.00Buy now
  • Drugs in Use

    Drugs in Use

    Optimise drug therapy for your patients. These case studies help you bridge the gap between theoretical medicines knowledge and practical applications.

    £43.00Buy now
  • Palliative Care Formulary (PCF6)

    Palliative Care Formulary (PCF6)

    Palliative Care Formulary is a comprehensive combination of independent information about drugs used in palliative care.

    £55.00Buy now
  • Pharmaceutical Toxicology

    Pharmaceutical Toxicology

    Explains the methodology and requirements of pre-clinical safety assessments of new medicines. Includes registration requirements and pharmacovigilance.

    £40.00Buy now

Search an extensive range of the world’s most trusted resources

Powered by MedicinesComplete
  • Print
  • Share
  • Comment
  • Save
  • Print Friendly Version of this pagePrint Get a PDF version of this webpagePDF

Supplementary images

  • ‘Plants: healers and killers’, by Michael Radcliffe Lee

Jobs you might like

Newsletter Sign-up

Want to keep up with the latest news, comment and CPD articles in pharmacy and science? Subscribe to our free alerts.