Scopolamine, one of three main alkaloids found in a number of different plants among the Solanaceae family has a medicinal history dating back several centuries and a recreational history dating back several millennia. In 1754, Giovanni Antonio Scopoli was accepted as a physician in the mercury mines of Idrija in Carniola (located in modern day Slovenia). It was there that he found the time to observe over a thousand different plant species, which he later complied into a written collection published as Flora Carniolica in 1760. Among the documented plants was a short shrub sporting purple flowers, rightfully named Scopla Carniolica after its discoverer. It wasn’t until the turn of the nineteenth century, however, that this plant was recognized as having an important medicinal value. In the early 1800’s, a powerful tropane alkaloid was isolated from the plant’s rhizome by German professor Ernest A. Schmidt. It was give the name scopolamine and so began its medicinal journey.
Shortly after its isolation, scopolamine was found to be chemically identical to the drug hyoscine, which was extracted from the plant Henbane of the Solanaceae family. Henbane, (Hysocyamus niger) more commonly known as Stinking Nightshade, was employed alone or in combination with other psychoactive plants as an anesthetic poison during ancient times. It is because of its anesthetic properties that scopolamine made an appearance in Western medicine to be used in surgery, especially in the birthing process. In combination with morphine, scopolamine made a valuable birth anesthetic and analgesic. Women who received injections of the drug combination would enter into a so-called “twilight sleep”—a state of consciousness with no pain reception or remembrance. Twilight sleep fascinated the medical community and led Dr. Robert Ernest House to investigate further. His experiments throughout the early twentieth century concluded that those in a state of twilight sleep lacked the ability to imagine and therefore could not tell a lie. This shocking discovery brought about scopolamine’s infamous reputation as a truth serum and was used in police work to incriminate and exonerate criminals. By the 1930’s, though, scopolamine was no longer used in interrogations as other drugs were found to be safer.
Scopolamine does not have its origins in the medical field or in detective work, however. The alkaloid has a deep-rooted history as a magical plant used to induce hallucinations and explore an alternate reality. Scopolamine’s recreational history can be traced back to the Neolithic period (10200 – 2000 BCE) and was even documented in the Ebers Papyrus (1500 BCE). The ancient Egyptians, Celts, and Germanic people often used the seeds of the Henbane plant to enhance alcoholic beverages. The ancient Greeks also sought the use of the plant, as it was believed to be sacred to Apollo, the god of light, truth, and prophecy. Scopolamine played an important role in the rituals of the Oracle of Delphi (a priestess believed to be the orator of Apollo) as she foretold truths and divinations after inhaling the smoke of burning Henbane. The drug then reappeared during The Middle Ages (4 000 – 1400 CE), when it was incorporated into ointments and applied to the skin with broomsticks. Because of the delirium and hallucinations that followed, many users thought themselves to be flying or morphing into a wild animal—acts associated with witchcraft. The making of such an ointment, then, came to be known as Witches Brew and Henbane deemed a witches herb.
Besides in Henbane, scopolamine can be found in other species, including Datura, which also has historical uses dating back to antiquity. However, the plant from which the psychoactive drug is derived isn’t as important as the tropane alkaloids found within it.
Geis, G. (1959). In Scopolamine Veritas. The Early History of Drug-Induced Statements. The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science, 50(4), 347-357.