The author of Plant Intoxicants, Baron Ernst von Bibra (1806-1878), was born into a Bavarian family of lesser nobility and modest fortune, and in many respects his life and work typify that of the 19th-century gentleman-scientist. Von Bibra's earliest years passed in the family's castle in the village of Bibra in Northeastern Bavaria; following his father's death when Ernst was not yet two years of age, he was raised by a family friend residing in Würzberg, Baron Christoph Franz von Hutton, a treasurer to the Archduke Ferdinand. As a young man, von Bibra studied law, chemistry, and medicine at the University of Würzberg. At the age of 18, he inherited the family estate at Schwebheim, and the income from this rural property afforded him sufficient means to pursue a life as a scholar, traveler, independently funded scientist, and man of letters. Von Bibra published works on art history, forensic chemistry, and forensic medicine and achieved recognition and awards for hi s contributions from various scientific academies; however, he became most familiar to a wider audience for his travelogues, novels, ethnographies, and works in natural and cultural history, produced following a year-and-a-half sojourn in South America. It was there that he first encountered many of the intoxicating plants, and the customs associated with their use, that he was to describe in Die narkotischen Genussmittel und der Mensch, published in 1855. It is this work, the most widely known of Von Bibra's prolific writings, that has been rendered into English under the title Plant Intoxicants.
Von Bibra's book was an example of the style of popular scientific writing of the time that included Alexander von Humboldt's Cosmos, Justus von Leibig's Chemical Letters, and Carl von Voit's Physiological Letters. Published in an era when the notion of experimental pharmacology was still a novel concept even to the scientifically educated, Plant Intoxicants contributed significantly to the rise of scientific materialism, and in its matter-of-fact, descriptive tone, was clearly the literary progenitor of Lewis Lewin's Phantastica: Die Betäubenden und erregenden Genussmittel: Für Ärzte und Nichtärzte (Phantastica: The Sedative and Stimulating Pleasure Drugs: for Physicians and Nonphysicians) which did not appear until nearly 70 years later.
In the 17 chapters of Plant Intoxicants, Von Bibra summarizes and comments upon the current (as of 1855) state of scientific knowledge of most of the important psychoactive drug plants that were well-known at the time, including coffee, tea, Paraguayan Tea (yerba maté), Guaraná, chocolate, coca, opium, hashish, thornapple, tobacco, and betel; the book also includes chapters on some psychoactive intoxicants relatively obscure at the time, and that remain more or less obscure today. Thus, there are chapters on coffee leaves as a beverage, Fahan Tea (the orchid Angraecum fragrans Thouars), Khat, Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria), the opiate derived from the "poison lettuce," Lactuca virosa L., and arsenous acid or arsenic trioxide (As(2)O(3)) -- the latter was customarily consumed in minute amounts by some Victorian girls at the time as a sort of cosmetic tonic; it gave a rosy glow to the skin due to capillary damage and transduction of hemoglobin into the skin. Little in formation was available on some of these materials at the time, and the brevity of the chapters on these topics in Plant Intoxicants reflects this paucity of knowledge. Von Bibra devotes a few pages to each of these intoxicants, reporting on their botanical origins, their customary manner of usage, and comments on the effects of the preparations and their chemical composition; although in many cases, he is led into speculation on that topic since the active constituents, even of relatively well-known drug plants such as coca, had not been thoroughly investigated. (Cocaine, for example, was not isolated and definitively characterized until 1860, five years after the publication of Von Bibra's book). In this respect, the Technical Notes provided by Jonathan Ott are a useful addendum to the main text, for they provide the reader with a summary of the scientific knowledge regarding these plants that has accumulated in the 140 years since Plant Intoxicants was first published.
In other instances, however, items discussed in the book, particularly opium, coffee and tea, hashish, chocolate, and tobacco, were already in widespread use around the world, were familiar to many Europeans, and were economically important agricultural commodities. A considerable body of practical and scientific knowledge regarding the botanical origins, varieties, commercial production, customary methods of use, nutritional composition, pharmacological effects, and chemical properties of these more "mainstream" psychoactive plants was already extant at the time Von Bibra wrote, and he was careful to summarize this corpus of knowledge in each of the relevant chapters. Much of this material is still informative for many contemporary readers, with the exception of those who have already conducted an in-depth study of the varietal forms, post-harvest processing, and cultural and economic histories of these important commercial drugs.
In summary, Von Bibra's book is a classic of the genre, and at the time of its publication was a valued compendium of knowledge for scientific professionals and educated laymen alike. It was a seminal work in many respects, the forerunner of later classics in the field of ethnopsychopharmacognosy that achieved far wider recognition. As such, Plant Intoxicants belongs on the bookshelf of any scholar with an interest in the scientific, cultural, ethnographic, and historical aspects of psychoactive drug plants.
Article copyright American Botanical Council.
By Dennis McKenna