"Eye Of Newt And Toe of Frog": Biotoxins in Warfare
David W. Tschanz
|Fillet of a fenny snake,|
In the cauldron boil & bake;
Eye of newt and toe of frog,
Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting
Lizard's leg & howlet's wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell broth boil and bubble.
|Macbeth Act IV, Scene 1|
Most persons familiar with the witches scene from Macbeth treat these lines as little more than nonsense rhymes meant
to portray insanity. But the witches
who dabbled in these recipes were not as crazy as they might appear. The poison produced by certain frogs, known
as betrachotoxin and used by Colombian Indians to tip blow gun darts, is 25
times deadlier than cobra venom. The lowly newt produces tetrodotoxin, another
poison of awesome potency. A brew made
from the eye of newt and toe of frog, properly devised by a well-informed old
crone, could quickly dim the roving eye of a feudal swain or forever alter the
destiny of a medieval prince or dynasty.
Much has been written about biological warfare.
But some diseases, like botulism, are often considered weapons of
biological or bacteriological warfare along with anthrax and other living
organisms that reproduce. But death is
caused by the chemical poisons that the organisms secrete. These toxins are not living things. They cannot reproduce.
Naturally occurring, they cannot be grouped
with the synthetic poisons of the industrial age -- phosgene, mustard agent, or
nerve agents that form the basis of chemical warfare.
But their potential in warfare is real and they can and have been
The world is a cornucopia of
poisons. Mankind is surrounded by other living creatures that produce
chemical substances that can kill him. Even
the most innocent of decorative house plants --such as the colorful croton-- can
be a deadly killer. Ricin, the poison produced by castor beans (used to make
castor oil), is nearly one hundred times as deadly as cobra venom. Oleander can
bring on death within a few short hours.
These are only a few.
Primitive man gained his knowledge of poisons simply by observing the
casualties from eating certain animals or plants, or their roots, nuts, berries
or juices. They extracted these
substances to stun or kill fish, or to tip their arrows before hunting as with
curare in the Amazon.
Many of these primitive concoctions for hunting, combat or ritual, have
been chemically reproduced. Curare, in
small doses, has a medical value as it can relax the muscular system without
damage. Ancient man found other natural
poisons useful in producing intoxication, visions or abortions when applied in
controlled quantities. Some were used
in religious rituals, Inca sacrificial victims were given cocoa leaf to chew to
deaden their sense to the numbing cold at 20,000 feet. Others included opium, strychnine, caffeine,
atropine, digitalis and ergotamine. For
magical visions, pain-killers or group therapy there was a choice of nightshade,
henbane, mandrake, thorn apple, marijuana, betel nut, peyotl and assorted
mushrooms. Other nuts, roots, berries and juices were especially useful for
suicide, murder and ritual trial (the accused was forced to swallow a potion or
chew a twig and guilt or innocence was determined by whether he or she died).
Not much more than a century ago, less in some
areas, everyone was familiar with folk poisons to some extent or knew someone
who was. In 1895, the fourth edition of
John Reese's Text-book of Medical
Jurisprudence and Toxicology stated that poisoning was still "the most
frequent of all the causes of violent death, the casualties of war
excepted." As Western societies
became more urbanized, people became estranged from their traditional close
association with plants and animals, except as pre-packaged groceries and
ornamentals shrubs. Sources of poisons
were lost or forgotten, or buried in the back of most people's mind. The poisons produced by herbs, fungi,
reptiles, amphibians and marine creatures not only live on in murder mysteries
but in the military plans of the past and present.