Fun Fact: What Benefit Did Victorian Era Physicians Believe Strychnine Could Provide?
At the turn of the twentieth century, strychnine was widely acknowledged by the medical community for its effective use as a stimulant.
What benefit did physicians in the Victorian era believe strychnine could provide?
Answer: They believed it could act as a stimulant with a sexual benefit.
At the turn of the twentieth century, strychnine was widely acknowledged by the medical community for its effective use as a stimulant. The drug was used for Olympic marathon runners to help them maintain their stamina, such as in the case of American distance runner Thomas Hicks in 1904, or to help students to stay up and cram for a test, such as in the case of Leonard Sandall in 1896.
In fact, strychnine is able to act as a short-term stimulant, as it can—in very small doses—provide a shock to the nervous system in a fashion similar to caffeine. However, it also does not take a large amount of strychnine to result in the death of the user, with a lethal dose being only 5 milligrams.
In the 19th century, French scientists became particularly interested in one potential application of strychnine’s stimulant capacity after they heard rumors of the drug’s ability to provide sexual benefits to users.
Rumors of the use of nux vomica, the scientific name for strychnine, for this purpose spread from India and Southeast Asia to the West during the Victorian era. One observer of the trend in India in 1870 noted, “The more debauched among the Rajpoots of the province of Guzerat use nux vomica as a stimulus.”
In France during the Victorian era, doctors Trosseau and Pidioux recorded a case in which a male patient aged 25 years had only been able to engage in what they referred to as “fraternal communication” with his wife. After 18 months of this occurring, the patient was given strychnine to ameliorate the situation, with the patient ultimately finding the drug effective. Additionally, the patient noted that the benefit the drug provided ceased when he stopped taking it.
Following this trend in France, a company in Miami during the 1960s learned of strychnine’s supposed sexual benefit from the medical writings of the Victorian era. The company, All Products Unlimited, hoped to seize upon the sexual revolution of the 1960s for financial gain by selling an aphrodisiac pill they called Jems. The pill, marketed as a “sex energizer pep tablet for married men and women,” contained a small dose of strychnine.
Following the release of Jems to the general public, All Products Unlimited was sued for mail fraud. The suit was, in fact, not focused toward the inclusion of strychnine in the pill’s formula, but instead was focused upon the false claims of Jems being able to provide sexual benefit to consumers. Upon facing the charges in court, the company decided not to fight it and was swiftly indicted.
Kang L, Pedersen N. Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. New York, NY: Workman Publishing; 2017.