March 2, 1990

Poisons of the Past: Molds, Epidemics, and History

Author Affiliations

Northwestern University Medical School Chicago, Ill

Northwestern University Medical School Chicago, Ill


by Mary Kilbourne Matossian, 190 pp, with illus, $22.50, ISBN 0-300-03949-2, New Haven, Conn, Yale University Press, 1989.

JAMA. 1990;263(9):1280-1281. doi:10.1001/jama.1990.03440090118039

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The breadth of this book quickly becomes evident from a perusal of the list of tables. These range in subject from the symptoms of ergotism through the mortality of English peers' children, 1550-1849, to tree-ring indices in Nancy Brook, NH, 1660-1759. Matossian has attempted to show the relationships between mycotoxins, primarily ergot, and infertility, increased mortality, and mass psychoses, especially witch persecutions.

The author clearly states that much of her argument must rely on indirection, since the background statistics and scientific links simply are nonexistent. She has, nevertheless, made a strong case for her hypotheses and has done so in an intriguing and lucid manner. Nor is this a first-shot book: Matossian has been writing on related topics for a decade.

Food poisoning has frequently played a role in history, especially in Russia and the rest of Europe north of the Pyrenees and the Alps. Much of the author's supporting