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Murder, Magic and Medicine.
The alliterative title of John Mann's veritably, valuable volume is derived from his treatment of the mythic mandrake (Mandragora officinarum), and its "partners in crime," the deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna) and black henbane (Hyoscyamus niger). This trio has had indeed a long notorious association with poisoning, both accidental and deliberate, as well as with soothsaying and witchcraft. Mann's manual deals with both the historical and scientific bases of a broad range of plant activities and applications, and would be engaging reading particularly for those interested in medicinal plants, their secondary metabolic strategies, and the designs to which man has applied them. Professor Mann, a professor of organic chemistry at the University of Reading in the U.K., propels from Macbeth's Shakespearean cauldron a distillation of the basic pharmacology of the major recognized neurotransmitters, and relates their effects to historical applications of plants in intoxication, ritual, recreation, and therapy. Along the way, Prof. Mann proposes a simplified integrated biochemical framework for rationalizing these activities, embracing also the more prominent and interesting marine, microbial, and reptilian toxins. While some of the suggested structure-activity relationships seem strained, and there are occasional egregious errors in structural and botanical representation, the text is generally instructive and interesting. How many readers would have known that cocoa was invented in 1550 by Chiapas nuns who had the inspiration to combine cacao beans, vanilla, and sugar in an aqueous medium? The author trips us through another alliterative procession from chocolate and caffeine-containing brews, through chat (from the African shrub, Catha edulis) to coca (Erythroxylum coca), cola (Cola nitida and C. acuminata), and various other continental chews. Mann also conducts an interesting tour of the history of pharmacy starting with "the earliest systematic study of herbal medicine" by the Chinese Emperor Shennung, "a shadowy figure who probably lived about 2700 BC" and whose Herbal (c. 200 BC) comprised 365 drugs, including Ephedra (for bronchial problems), Castor, Ricinus communis (for purgative castor oil -- although the Russian KGB allegedly employed its highly toxic principle ricin in a recent communist assassination plot in the U.K.), and Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy (for morphine, of course). Although the Assyrians (1900-400 BC) -- but not the Sumerians and Akkadians (ca. 3000 BC) -- are credited with the knowledge of a vast number (1,000) of medicinal plants, Mann considers the Ebers papyrus of Egypt to provide the best insight into ancient pharmacy. George Ebers, an archaeologist, purchased the document (copies of which date from 1550 BC, but are said to include entries from 3550 BC) from a wealthy Egyptian in 1862. All the familiar landmark historical figures of pharmacy, their philosophies and foibles, are encountered in this peripatetic parade. Most readers with a botanical/medicinal bent will, however, find occasional sources of irritation in the taxonomic and therapeutic treatments of this torn e: St. John's Wort, ill-advisedly recommended by Gerard for ague (malarial fever -- "tertians or quartans" -- associated with recurrent chills) is Latinized as Hypericum tomentosum, but has long now been known as H. perforatum. The treatment of purgatives emphasizes heavily the action of emodin -- a constituent of senna (favored by the Pharaohs and described as "a collective name for extracts of various Cassia species"), of the leaves of Aloe barbadensis (used by Greeks and Romans), and also of Chinese rhubarb (Rheum palmatum -- not the common or garden variety). But Mann gets totally tangled when dealing with the other significant anthraquinone-containing purgatives, namely buckthorn and cascara sagrada (Spanish for `holy bark') -- Rhamnus frangula and R. purshiana, respectively: "In the Americas, cascara buckthorn (Rhamnus purshiana) was the plant of choice. The conquistadores were so impressed by the mildness and efficacy of its extracts that they christened it `holy bark' (cascara), and the European settlers learnt it from the Indians". Finally, there is feverfew (Tanacetum parthenium), claimed by the author to have been used by early monastic apothecaries for migraine and arthritis, and recommended by Gerard for "giddie(ness) in the head." However, while feverfew has had a traditional reputation as a febrifuge and in the treatment of "female problems" and headache, this last application is undoubtedly for symptomatic relief, and also of very questionable value. In fact, the use of the leaves of the herb in the prophylactic treatment of migraine and arthritis is a modern one, having gained popularity in Britain only in the late 1970s. Mann also incorrectly states that extracts of the plant have been shown to be effective in migraine prophylaxis, citing the 1985 London Migraine Clinic study. Actually, that inferior study, as well as the later (1988) vastly superior study, employed dried powdered whole leaf Mann further wrongly states that the findings of the studies "were complicated by the irregular constituti on of the plants." But one should certainly be wary of the possibility of considerable variation in the character of commercial feverfew preparations - as of many other commercial herbal products! On the whole, though, Professor Mann has written an eminently readable and basically quite informative general history of pharmacy while providing an engaging introduction to modern pharmacology. However, detailed and more penetrating exploration will require searching beyond the "popular scientific" general literature cited in the book's brief bibliography. Article copyright American Botanical Council. ~~~~~~~~ By D.V.C. Awang">by John Mann. 1994. Oxford University Pres, New York. Softcover, Plastic covered, 232 pp. $14.95 ISBN #0-19-855854-6. Available from ABC Books #B105p#