Back to All Events

Ergot, Midwives & St Anthony’s Fire

  • Wellcome Collection 183 Camden Rd England, NW1 2BE United Kingdom (map)

Model making, archival exploration and discussion in the Wellcome Collection Reading Room

In the 1950s, the Wellcome Foundation  was still cultivating Ergot – a parasitic fungus – for use in making pharmaceutical drugs. The story of this fungus connects fascinating themes including the edge between poison and medicine; witchcraft; midwifery, gendered knowledge and reproductive rights. During this workshop, participants will have the opportunity to work with visual material from the archive, and create models based on the parasitic fungus. Whilst making together we will explore the themes brought up by the story of ergot.

Ergot is historically known as a poison and 'ergotism' was common in Medieval Europe, where rye bread was part of the staple diet. One name for ergot poisoning was 'St Anthony's Fire' – because it caused burning pains in the limbs (and an order named after St Anthony was set up to take care of sufferers). Medically, ergot has been used historically by midwives in the last stages of labour or as an abortifacient. In the 20th Century, pharmaceutical drugs were developed from ergot by the Wellcome Foundation and other companies to induce labor and to control haemorrhaging (Ergometrine) and also an anti-migraine drug (Ergotamine).

This series of workshops are part of Rebecca Beinart’s ‘Urban Antibodies’ project. Each session takes the story of specific plants as a starting point to delve into histories of material and knowledge transfer, bioprospecting, exploitation, medical innovation, gender, bodies, power, control, patents and profit. Through a practical activity, participants are invited to work directly with material from the archives – bringing these histories into dialogue with contemporary experiences of hormones and health. The research for Urban Antibodies was supported through a Wellcome Research Bursary.