St. Anthony, after whom the “fire” was named, lived as a religious hermit in Egypt; he died at the age of 105 in A.D. 356. He is the protecting saint against epilepsy, and infection. During the Crusades, the knights brought back his remains to Dauphiné, in France, for burial. St. Anthony fire. It was here in Dauphiné that the earliest recognized plague of “Holy Fire” occurred in 1039.
St. Anthony of Padua fire, Ergot
A wealthy citizen, Gaston, and his son were among the afflicted, and Gaston promised to give all his wealth to aid other victims if Saint Anthony would cure him and his son. Thus it was that in this French town a hospital to care for sufferers was founded and the Order of Anthony of Padua was also established. A pilgrimage to shrines consecrated to St. Anthony was believed to cure the disease. But a change in diet bread free of Ergot may have had a beneficial effect.
It was not until 1676 some five hundred years after the height of St. Anthony’s fire that the real cause of ergotism was discovered, whereupon measures of control were set up. Millers in the Middle Ages frequently kept clean rye flour for the affluent, selling flour made from “spurred rye” that infected with Ergot to poorer customers.
Once the cause was known, vigilance in the mills quickly reduced the epidemics of St. Anthony’s fire. Even today, however, there are occasional outbreaks of epidemics in which whole villages are affected. The most notorious recent attacks have occurred in France and Belgium in 1953 and in the Ukraine and Ireland in 1929. There are suggestions that the alleged outbreaks of witchcraft in colonial New England, especially in Salem, Massachusetts, may have been due to Ergot poisoning.
European midwives had long known that Ergot could aid in cases of difficult childbirth and had used the fungus for that purpose. Chemicals isolated from Ergot are still official drugs to induce contraction of involuntary muscles in stubborn childbirth. The earliest medical report of the obstetric value of Ergot was published in 1582 by Lonicer of Frankfurt, who stated that Ergot- parasitized rye is of sovereign efficiency in pregnancy pains.
Although widely employed by midwives, Ergot was first employed by a physician when Desgranges of Lyons experimented with it and published his observations in 1818.
The Swiss botanist Bauhin described Ergot in 1595, and his son later produced the first illustration of Ergot in 1658. In 1676, the French physician botanist Dodart added much scientific knowledge to the story of Ergot. He advised the French Academy that the only way to control plagues of ergotism was to sift the rye to extract the Ergot spores from it.