Peculiar disturbances of vision

I have found what is reportedly the first description of a hallucinogenic ‘magic mushroom’ trip in the Western medical literature. It is from a 1926 paper on different types of mushroom poisoning that was published in the Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics and was written by William. W. Ford.

He lists various types of poisoning, including stomach upsets, cramps, vomiting and convulsions, but the final category is where he tackles the effects of what are now known as ‘magic mushrooms’ that contain the naturally occurring hallucinogenic drug psilocybin.

5. Mycetismus cerebralis. Here the patients show peculiar cerebral symptoms four or five hours after the fungi are eaten. They are greatly exhilarated, laugh immoderately on slight occasion, develop a staggering gait and show peculiar disturbances of vision. The symptoms are transient, the patients being restored to health in twenty-four to forty-eight hours, except for a peculiar sensation which they describe as a feeling “as if they were walking on air.” This subjective sensation may last several days.

The plants responsible for this peculiar poisoning are Panaeolus papilionaceus and Panaeolus campanulatus. They are of interest to us chiefly in that they grow on lawns together with the edible mushroom, Agaricus campestris, and also rarely in beds for the artificial propagation of this species.

Although leaders of the psychedelic movement have created back histories about Western use of hallucinogenic mushrooms – suggesting they were used for spiritual purposes by druids, the Ancient Greeks, and folk healers to the present day – historian Andy Letcher has noted that the effects of these fungi have, as far as we know, always been treated as accidental poisoning.

For example, he notes in his book on the cultural history of the ‘magic mushroom’ that throughout the 18th and 19th centuries medical records describe how consumption of what we would now recognise as ‘magic mushrooms’ were treated with emetics, cathartics, the stomach pump, and occasionally leeches, as would any other poison.

The medical article by William. W. Ford, published 30 years before the active ingredient of magic mushroom would be isolated, was the first time that the hallucinogenic effects had been identified as a distinct effect.

We know now that the toxicity of psilocybin is very low and the main dangers are being inebriated (off your face) or accidentally picking and eating genuinely poisonous mushrooms.

I learnt about this early medical report from an academic article by Andy Letcher where he analysis how ‘magic mushrooms’ have been discussed in popular culture and science.

Link to online version of paywalled 1926 paper.
Link to NYT review of Shrooms: A Cultural History of the Magic Mushroom.

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