Again, I can’t find any suitably-licensed photographs, so today’s BPotD features more illustrations from the public domain work, Köhler’s Medizinal Pflanzen (via Wikimedia Commons, image 1 | image 2). For photographs of Strychnos nux-vomica, please visit the Wikimedia Commons page: Strychnos nux-vomica.
Continuing with the “biodiversity and sports” series:
Most modern performance-enhancing drugs used in sports are either derived from animals or manufactured synthetically. However, some of the first performance-enhancing drugs were derived from plants, including an alkaloid present in large quantities in the two species featured today. Both Strychnos nux-vomica and Strychnos ignatii contain high quantities of strychnine (or, “rat poison”).
Strychnos nux-vomica, or the strychnine tree, and Strychnos ignatii, or Ignatius-bean, are both native to tropical Asia, though the latter species also extends into warm temperate China. Individual trees of Strychnos nux-vomica grow to 25m (to 82ft.); Strychnos ignatii, on the other hand, is a liana, or woody vine. It climbs surrounding trees, reaching a maximum height of around 20m (65 ft.). Both species, though, were (are?) used in the production of traditional medicines.
Strychnine was first isolated as a chemical compound from the fruit of Strychnos ignatii in the early 19th century, though it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that its chemical structure was determined. Strychnos nux-vomica is the most common source of this alkaloid. It is a stimulant; in lethal doses, it kills through muscular convulsions leading to either asphyxiation or exhaustion. Smaller doses of this muscle stimulant, however, can enhance athletic ability, and it is one of the first performance-enhancing drugs used in the modern Olympic games. In the 1904 Olympics, US marathon runner Thomas J. Hicks was injected with ~1mg of strychnine in solution–twice–and given brandy in order to complete the race and receive a gold medal. Read more:
- Strychnine at the Olympics via Wikipedia
- Cheats Sometimes Prosper via The Guardian
- One Man’s Poison via The Boston Globe