How the British missed a trip

The first ever medical report on the effects of magic mushrooms is featured in an article in Current Biology. The excerpt is from a 1799 report entitled ‘On A Poisonous Species of Agaric’ from an issue of The London Medical and Physical Journal.

The psychological effects of hallucinogenic, or ‘magic’ mushrooms were first documented in the medical literature in 1799: a forty year-old father of four, JS, collected wild mushrooms in London’s Green Park and cooked them as a stew for breakfast for himself and his four young children. The apothecary Everard Brande described what happened then:

“Edward, one of the children (eight years old), who had eaten a large proportion of the mushrooms, as they thought them, was attacked with fits of immoderate laughter, nor could the threats of his father or mother refrain him. To this succeeded vertigo, and a great deal of stupor, from which he was roused by being called or shaken, but immediately relapsed. […] he sometimes pressed his hands on different parts of his abdomen, as if in pain, but when roused and interrogated as to it, he answered indifferently, yes, or no, as he did to every other question, evidently without any relation to what was asked. About the same time the father, aged forty, was attacked with vertigo, and complained that everything appeared black, then wholly disappeared”

The report is curious for two reasons. The first is that, contrary to the title, the mushroom wasn’t a ‘species of Agaric’.

Agaric here refers to fly agaric which is a red and white spotted toadstool that has long been known to have deliriant properties due to its effect on the acetylcholine receptors in the brain

But the report clearly discusses the classic ‘magic mushroom’ found in the UK, psilocybe semilanceata, which is a small brown fungus that has its hallucinogenic effects through the serotonin system – as do most recreational psychedelic drugs.

The other curious thing is that this hallucinogenic mushroom is common in the UK but seemingly lay undiscovered until 1799.

In contrast, mushrooms from the same species that are equally common in South America were first recorded some 2,000 years ago and became a central part of indigenous spirituality. The Aztecs called these mushrooms teonanacatl – the God mushroom – and were considered a way of accessing the divine.

The British, it seemed, either missed or ignored the fungus, and considered it nothing more than an inedible brown pest.

Link to 1799 report on the effects of magic mushrooms.

6 thoughts on “How the British missed a trip”

  1. …or, on the other hand, they have been consuming them for years and it’s been the biggest State Secret in History… LOL!!!!!! It would explain a lot….

  2. It should be noted that although muscarine, with its effect on acetylcholine receptors, is contained in small amounts in fly agaric, the main active compound is now considered to be muscimol, with a different mechanism of action.

  3. It should be noted that ingesting the completely legal Fly Agaric will result in a significantly more dangerous and generally far more unpleasant experience than would result from ingesting the now illegal traditional magic mushroom. Just another example of our back to front drug laws.

  4. I highly doubt it was “undiscovered” just because it wasn’t reported in a peer-reviewed scientific journal before 1799, that’d better not be the case for most other discoveries!
    That’s right Kuang, muscimol activates GABA-A receptors, this is the more likely effector.
    Whole-heartedly agree with Neurobonkers’ point, ridiculous law, made by people who haven’t the slightest clue what they’re even banning.

  5. There are prior reports of accidental intoxications, but Everard Brande’s 1799 account is by far the most detailed.

    Typically the effects were regarded as symptoms of poisoning (as they were by Brande and his subjects). This isn’t surprising: if you ate some Liberty Caps without the expectation of a colourful and mind-expanding trip and started to notice the effects, your first thought would most likely be ‘I’ve eaten a poisonous mushroom’ – followed, probably, by ‘OMG I’m going to die’. Not the best set for a pleasant afternoon.

    Of course we can’t prove that there was no initiatic tradition of psilocybin use – but if there was it seems to be absent from the historical record. It’s perhaps more likely that it was only when a psychedelic culture emerged that the effects of Liberty Caps were recognised and valued, and their use spread.

    p.s. ‘a species of agaric’: ‘agaric’ in the 18th century was a generic term like ‘toadstool’, and didn’t refer specifically to fly agaric.

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