Duboisia, the Australian belladonna

Paul FOLEY
Faculty of Biology, Institute for the History of Medicine, Clinical Neurochemistr, Department of Psychiatry, University of Würzburg, Germany

Alkaloids derived from solenaceous plants were the subject of intense scrutiny by chemists and pharmacologists in the second half of the 19th century, and new members of the class were eagerly sought for use in the clinic. Nevertheless, it was somewhat unexpected when it was discovered in the 1870s that an Australian bush, Duboisia myoporoides, long employed by Aborigines as a hunting poison and medication, contained an atropine-like alkaloid, promptly dubbed "duboisine". A colorful history ensued, in which duboisine was initially confused by leading chemists with "piturine" (nor-nicotine), extracted from another Duboisia species, and the identify of duboisine with hyoscyamine and hyoscine was debated with similar uncertainty. Duboisine was quickly adopted in Australia and Europe as a more convenient mydriatic than atropine; within a few years, its value as a potent sedative in the management of psychiatric patients had also been recognized, especially in Germany. As with other solanaceous alkaloids, this led to its successful introduction into the therapy of parkinsonism. It would eventually prove that the active component of duboisine was, in fact, hyoscine (scopolamine); as it had always been an expensive drug to import, this led to a rapid decline in its use in Europe. With the outbreak of World War II, however, its fortunes rose once more; a replacement for German scopolamine was urgently required for application in surgical anesthesia and to combat sea-sickness, leading to the establishment of plantations in Queensland which continue to supply the bulk of the world's raw scopolamine. Duboisia myoporoides was also the source of another alkaloid, tigloidine, which showed greater promise in the therapy of parkinsonism in the 1950s and 1960s before its cost and the advent of L-DOPA therapy led to its demise.


Session VII -- Pharmacological and Magical Aspects of Neurology
Friday, 15 June 2001, 3:00 pm

Sixth Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences (ISHN) and
Eighth Meeting of the European Club for the History of Neurology (ECHN)

Cologne, Germany