Pharmacy Fact: The Case of a Sailor’s Accidental Death Following His Unrelated Beatings of Hospital Staff


When a patient recovering from gonorrhea was fed the powder of the kuchila molung plant, the patient quickly suffered from much more than painful urination.

Native to India and Southeast Asia, the strychnine tree, or strychnos nux-vomica, is a medium-sized tree that can grow up to 40 feet tall. As the tree grows, it sprouts flowers from its leaves, which are gradually replaced by orange-red pear-shaped fruit that sprinkle its boughs. Innocent in its delicate silhouette, the tree entices passersby to eat from its fleshy ornaments, within which the strychnine alkaloid is contained.

What may cue the human olfactory capacity to the potential for foul play is the scent that the loose clusters of pale greenish-white, funnel-shaped flowers produce, which is a heinous, repellent smell to those who try. However, the flowers are replaced by the berries of the tree, which contain 5 seeds enveloped by a white pulp.

Although the seeds contain the highest yield of the mortally poisonous strychnine alkaloid, all parts of the plant are poisonous. Even the parasitic plants that latch onto its boughs for nourishment gradually become filled with poison, such as in the case of the kuchila molung plant.

Which is why, when a patient recovering from gonorrhea was fed the powder of the kuchila molung plant, the patient quickly suffered from much more than painful urination.

In 1840, an English sailor had checked himself into a hospital in Calcutta, India, where his regiment in the Royal Navy was stationed. After experiencing some pain while urinating and some very unpleasant discharge, he was in need of medical attention.

While waiting for care, the sailor grew bored and impatient. He felt that his painful urination was more urgent of an issue than the health care professionals in the hospital were treating it to be, so he decided the best plan of action was to beat several servants in his environs. Although these servants were there specifically to help care for him, he thought beating them might help to inspire a greater level of urgency to their treatment of his malady.

And he was not wrong. The hospital servants decided the best plan of action was to give a new and emerging experimental treatment a try. After grinding the kuchila molung plant into a fine powder, several servants explained to the sailor they had heard his requests for a greater level of attention to his care and fed him the powder, which he quickly consumed, vindicated for his efforts.

Lying in his hospital bed, the sailor was dead 4 hours later. Although the Calcutta hospital servants wrote in their notes following the sailor’s demise that the incident was an “unfortunate mistake,” no one in the hospital made any specific objections to their miscalculation. The oversight remained as such, despite ample evidence to the contrary.


Kang L, Pedersen N. Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. New York, NY: Workman Publishing; 2017.

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