Ergotism (St Anthony's fire) was epidemic in the Middle Ages. It resulted in gangrene of the limbs and central nervous system toxicity.
We now know that ergotism was caused by consumption of rye contaminated with the fungus Claviceps purpurea.
It was discovered that an infusion of infected rye could speed labour. In 1932 Chassar, Moir and Dudley isolated ergometrine as the active ingredient.
Last reviewed 01/2018