Is lobelia toxic

Lobelia inflata was one of the most-often prescribed medicinal herbs both in North America and in Great Britain during the nineteenth century. It was used by all schools of medicine, but by none more so than the Thomsonian herbalists in North America, the Coffinites in Britain, and by their physician successors of the Physiomedicalist school. During the sociological warfare between the medical sects in that century, lobelia became a symbol. To the herbalists it was a harmless herb, one of their greatest healers, and their best alternative to the extensive bloodletting and administration of mercury-derived medicines that then dominated standard medicine. To their competitors of the Regular school of medicine, lobelia was a deadly poison. The latter claim was used to justify licensing laws and in some states laws to forbid the use of lobelia or even giving it to another. Unsubstantiated and unreferenced claims of lobelia toxicity entered the medical literature of the Regulars in 1810, on the basis of selective testimony in the trial of Samuel Thomson for allegedly causing the death of Ezra Lovett the year before. No other detailed case report of death due to lobelia appears in the medical literature of the past 190 years. In this issue, we attempt to tell the whole story, from its beginning through the present day. Our series of articles includes a literature review on lobelia toxicity, from 1809 to the present, which follows below. Starting on page 27, we also cover the trial of Samuel Thomson and the conflicting accounts of the death of Ezra Lovett, which remains the only case of alleged lobelia toxicity to provide details of dose, treatment, and symptoms, and we attempt to ascertain the cause of his death in the light of modern medical knowledge (page 27). We also cover on page 32 a brief flurry of lobelia toxicity allegations in London during the early 1850s. These articles, although covering historical and legal subjects, contain much information about t he clinical use of lobelia and about social divisions and prejudices in medical care which persist today. A review of some forms and clinical uses of lobelia appears on pages 33-34

Commenting on the alleged toxicity of lobelia in 1838, Professor William Tully of the Yale University Medical School stated that biased authors with no direct knowledge of the plant had succeeded in turning "something black as a crow into ten black crows." A lie repeated often enough may seem to become the truth. The original claims of lobelia toxicity in the Samuel Thomson trial would not be admitted today in either a court of law or a medical journal. And the routine medical practices of Thomson's accusers today would be considered gross medical malpractice. Yet their claims have been copied and cited uncritically ever since the 1809 trial, and remain in segments of the medical and herbal texts today as proof only of the prejudice and poor scholarship by their authors.

Medical Herbalism.


By Paul Bergner

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