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Pont-Saint-Esprit suffered collective hallucinations caused by ergotism

Posted in Historical articles, History, Medicine, Mystery, Oddities, Plants on Wednesday, 29 February 2012

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This edited article about medicine originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 655 published on 3 August 1974.

Pont-Saint-Esprit, picture, image, illustration

Various phenomena witnessed by the afflicted inhabitants of Pont-Saint-Esprit

As Dr. Albert Gabbai trudged along the familiar streets of Pont-Saint-Esprit, he was glad to be back. Admittedly, it was not a very exciting town, typical of many in the southern part of France. With a population of about 5,000, it had one decent hotel, a couple of garages and a tiny hospital. Certainly, it was not a place where anything much happened. Indeed, most travellers who crossed its little bridge over the River Rhone found the place exceptionally dull.

Dull or not, the sun usually shone on Pont-Saint-Esprit and that, so far as Dr Gabbai was concerned, made up for a lot. He had just taken his family on holiday and it had rained so much that, after a week, they had all returned home in dismay. So now, on 24th August, 1951, the doctor was making his way along the Boulevard Gambetta with the sun shining down on his head and almost looking forward to getting back to work.

“I’m an aeroplane! Look, I can fly!”

Dr Gabbai stopped dead in his tracks and stared up at the little hospital towards which he had been making his way. At a second floor window, a man was waving his arms up and down like the wings of a bird. The doctor recognised the figure instantly, for in a town the size of Pont-Saint-Esprit the inhabitants knew each other, at least by sight. The capering figure was that of Joseph Puche, a one-time pilot who had been admitted to hospital that day, gasping for breath and obviously seriously ill. Now he seemed to have gone out of his mind.

“Don’t you believe I can fly?” Puche yelled. “Just watch me!”

With his tremendous strength, the sick man broke free of the nurses who were doing their best to hold him and, with arms flailing wildly, launched himself into space. He dropped like a stone on to the cobbles below, crying out in agony as he cracked the bones in both legs. Then, before Dr Gabbai’s unbelieving eyes, he jumped up and actually ran fifty yards on the damaged bones before he was seized and carried, raving, back into the building from which he had just leaped.

White-faced, the doctor ran after him. “What has happened to Puche?” he demanded. “He was sane enough a few hours ago.”

“It’s not just Monsieur Puche,” a nurse told him in a shaking voice. “We’ve done nothing but admit new patients for the past hour. And Doctor, they’re all mad. Every one of them!”

“Nonsense, nurse. Pull yourself together.” Dr Gabbai strode into the hospital and made his way to the wards. It took him no longer than a couple of minutes to see that what the nurse had said was true. Men, women and children were screaming at imaginary terrors, while the horrified staff fought to hold them down. It was as if the patients were living through the most vivid and appalling nightmares. Visions so terrible that the sufferers seemed to wish to kill themselves rather than watch them any longer.

Dr Gabbai prescribed sedatives, doubtful if they would do much good. He felt helpless in the face of the question that was levelled at him from every side. “What is it, Doctor? What is happening in Pont-Saint-Esprit?”

Dr Gabbai didn’t know. For some reason that seemed quite inexplicable, a plague of madness had struck at his little town. He had no idea what might have caused it, but clearly it was up to him to find out.

All that night he did his best to solve the mystery. In between trying to quieten his patients, he thumbed through books, racking his brains for some clue as to what the trouble might be. At the back of his mind there was a half-forgotten memory of something he had read many years before. It had been an account of a series of very similar outbreaks that had occurred during the Middle Ages, usually in tightly knit communities such as religious orders or walled cities. People had shown the same signs of madness then, and had run screaming from terrible visions of monsters that sought to devour them. Saint Anthony’s Fire, the malady had been called, and in those superstitious days it had been put down to the work of the Devil. Modern medical opinion, Dr Gabbai remembered, was that the outbreak had been due to ergot poisoning.

Ergot! The doctor cudgelled his tired brain, seeking some kind of link with what was happening at Pont-Saint-Esprit. Ergot is a fungus that appears on badly dried wheat or rye. It was a known fact that anyone who ate such contaminated grain suffered from cramps, hallucinations and an inability to sleep, as well as a fierce sensation of burning. So far as he could remember, time was the only cure.

Could this be the answer? Dr Gabbai felt a growing wave of excitement. There had been complaints about the bread recently. The bakers had blamed the flour, which had been delivered by the Union Meuiere, the vast distribution organization that supplied flour to bakers all over France Grey, unwholesome stuff, that flour had been. It certainly seemed possible that it had been contaminated in some way.

Dr Gabbai came to a decision. He would treat his patients on the assumption that they were indeed suffering from ergot poisoning, and make immediate arrangements for them to be moved to mental hospitals at Nimes, Avignon and Montpellier. At least those towns had institutions with specially trained staff who knew how best to prevent violent patients from doing themselves harm.

But an urgent phone call put an end to that idea. Nobody, it seemed, could be admitted to a mental hospital without complete legal proof of insanity. Such investigations took a long time, and in any case it was fairly certain that the citizens of Pont-Saint-Esprit were only temporarily deranged. No, it was very much regretted that Dr Gabbai would have to manage as best he could.

Wearily, Dr Gabbai went back to the wards, where his patients, strapped to their beds, cried out that they were on fire, that they could not sleep, that dreadful creatures were chasing them. It was Saint Anthony’s Fire all right, the doctor told himself. Grimly, he watched the dawn break over the housetops and wondered what fresh horrors the day would bring.

It was not long before he found out. A young man stood at a street corner and started screaming that he was being attacked by tigers, an old age pensioner explained pathetically that he couldn’t stop his body sending out radio signals. The owner of the local garage, Monsieur Sauvet, who had always liked to watch high wire acts at the circus, decided to stage a show of his own. Full of misplaced confidence, he climbed out on to the suspension bridge over the Rhone and began to walk along one of the supporting wires until an exceptionally brave policeman went up after him and brought him down.

Not all the sufferers were violent. One man sat and wrote poems hour after hour. Others, particularly those who were on diets, imagined that they were eating enormous meals, or sat admiring superb colours that were invisible to everyone else.

Somehow, Dr Gabbai coped with them. Hollow-eyed, desperately weary, he organized groups of volunteers to take over from the exhausted hospital staff, and even found time to comfort the worried families of the victims. When nearby authorities continued to turn down his demands for help, he telephoned Paris and at last convinced a high government official that something had to be done. Eventually the necessary order was given and police, hospital staff and even units of the army were sent off to Pont-Saint-Esprit to report to the overworked little town doctor. And as the first convoy nosed its way through the cobbled streets, Albert Gabbai breathed a sigh of relief. Now, with any luck, they would win through.

It took the best part of a month for Saint Anthony’s Fire to run its course. After that time, most of the sufferers slowly regained their senses and were able to lead normal lives once more, although many who had injured themselves during their period of madness would carry their scars to the grave.

The official enquiries went on for years. Finally, it was agreed that the people of Pont-Saint-Esprit had indeed been under the influence of some kind of hallucinatory drug contained in the Union Meuiere’s flour. But, as the plague began to disperse towards the end of September, people were so relieved to find themselves sane again that they had little thought for the future.

Certainly Dr Gabbai hadn’t. If he felt anything at all after a month of numbing toil, it was a sense of satisfaction at a job well done. His town had needed him, and he hadn’t let it down. Now the only reward he asked was a good night’s sleep free of nightmares.

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