This drug, from the earliest period, has been known as a disturber of flour, it having been long since observed that flour made of rye containing ergot gave rise to the disease now known as ergotism. When we consider that many of the malignant epidemics and frightful pestilences recorded in the history of mediaeval Europe, including an epidemic occurring as late as 1816, were ascribed to spurred rye, it can be seen that such old terms as "convulsivus malignus" and "morbus spasmodicus," once applied to the ergot disease, were well chosen. Not till 1838, however, was the nature of ergot authoritatively determined by Quekett (529) in his paper read before the Linnaean Society, titled "Observations on the Anatomical and Physiological Nature of Ergot in Certain Grasses." Before that date, although recognized as a fungus, the stage known as ergot was considered a distinct species.
As with all natural drugs, so with ergot. It is a gift of domestic medicine, and was first mentioned by Adam Lonicer (394), Frankfort, Germany, who (1565) ascribed to it obstetric virtues, on the authority of women who considered it of "remarkable and certain efficacy." The English botanist Ray (536) alludes (1693) to its medicinal properties; a Dutch physician, Rathlaw, employed it in 1747; Desgranges, of Lyons (189b), praised it in 1777; while Dr. John Steams (Dr. John Steams, the man who introduced Ergot to American practice, was born in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, May 16, 1770. He graduated from Yale in 1789, studying medicine with Dr. Erastus Sargeant, of Stockbridge, until 1792. He then attended the University of Pennsylvania, but probably did not graduate, as in 1793 he began to practice medicine near Waterford, New York, marrying in 1797 the daughter of Col. Hezekiah Ketchum. He became enthusiastic in behalf of medical societies, and was a leading spirit in the passing of the New York Medical Law, 1806. When the Medical Society of the State of New York was established. Steams, being a leading spirit, was elected Secretary, filling the position for several years. In 1812 the regents of the University at Albany (where he then resided) conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Medicine. He was elected President of the Medical Society of New York four times successively, 1817, 1818, 1819, and 1820. In 1819 Dr. Steams moved to New York City, where in 1846 he was a leading spirit in organizing the New York Academy of Medicine, being elected the first President. He died of blood poisoning, the result of a wound, March 18, 1848.) (611a), of Waterford, N. Y., 1807, under the name "Pulvis parturiens," highly commended it in a paper contributed to the Medical Repository, which gave ergot the American introduction that, supported by other authorities, pushed the drug into prominence. Ergot is a gift of home obstetric practice established over three centuries ago by the German midwives. (See Lloyd Brothers' Drug Treatise No. XII on Ergot.)
The History of the Vegetable Drugs of the U.S.P., 1911, was written by John Uri Lloyd.