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MR Lee
Journal Issue: 
Volume 39: Issue 4: 2009




Ergot,   in   1900,   was   a  ‘chemical   mess’.   Henry  Wellcome,   the pharmaceutical manufacturer, invited Henry Hallett Dale, a physiologist, to join his research  department  and  solve  this  problem.  Dale,  in  turn,  recruited  an outstanding  group  of  scientists,  including  George  Barger, Arthur  Ewins  and Harold  Dudley,  who  would  make  distinguished  contributions  not  only  to  the chemistry of ergot but also to the identification of acetylcholine, histamine and tyramine  and  to  studies  on  their  physiological  effects.  Initially  Barger  and  Dale isolated the compound ergotoxine, but this proved to be a false lead; it was later shown  to  be  a  mixture  of  three  different  ergot  alkaloids. The  major  success  of the  Wellcome  group  was  the  discovery  and  isolation  of  ergometrine,  which would prove to be life-saving in postpartum haemorrhage. In 1917 Arthur Stoll and  his  colleagues  started  work  on  ergot  at  Sandoz  Pharmaceuticals  in  Basel. A  series  of  important  results  emerged  over  the  next  30  years,  including  the isolation of ergotamine in 1918, an effective treatment for migraine with aura.