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[Editor's note: The following is an article that ran in the June 1989 issue of Scientific American.]
Vincent van Gogh shot himself on the afternoon of July 27, 1890, in Auvers-sur-Oise, France; he died in the early morning two days later. Paul F. Gachet, the doctor who attended van Gogh during the last two months of his life, planted a thuja tree on the artist’s grave. The gesture was probably inspired by van Gogh’s admiration of thuja trees and his inclusion of their flamelike images in some of his Auvers paintings.
Gachet’s choice of a grave ornament was unwittingly pathetic. The thuja tree is a classical source of the chemical thujone, a constituent and indeed the toxic principle of the alcoholic drink known as absinthe. There is good evidence to indicate that van Gogh was addicted to absinthe, that his psychosis was exacerbated by thujone and that his fits with hallucinations contributed to his suicide.
In his fondness for absinthe van Gogh was by no means alone. The drink was enormously popular in the late 19th century, particularly in France. French soldiers fighting in the Algerian conflicts of the 1840’s had spiked their wine with wormwood extract (ostensibly to ward off fevers), and on their return to France their acquired taste was satisfied by absinthe, which contained a variety of essential oils including that of wormwood. Absinthe’s popularity with the soldiers spread among their compatriots from all walks of life; some of the most creative people of the time were its devotees. Absinthe was said to evoke new views, different experiences and unique feelings.
It could also wrack the drinkers’ brains. The disease known as absinthism was recognized in the 1850’s; its victims evinced a dazed condition) and intellectual enfeeblement and experienced terrifying hallucinations. The symptoms and extent of the damage from excessive consumption of absinthe could not be attributed to alcohol alone. Other culpable chemicals came from the leaves and flowers used in the drink’s preparation. But manufacturers, governments and the public, enamored of profits, tax revenues and titillation, respectively, were slow to heed the warning signs. Absinthe was not banned until the 20th century.
There may have been a subtler reason for the reluctance to abandon this favorite spirit. Some of the plants that gave absinthe its distinctive taste were stock remedies from herbal lore; they had been exploited for thousands of years with results that were often meritorious, sometimes innocuous and rarely sinister. Even after the liqueur’s fall from grace, investigations of the chemistry and the physiological effects of its constituents, as well as those of related chemicals, contributed to medical practices and to the development of effective drugs.
Thujone occurs in a variety of plants, including tansy (Tanacetum vulgare) and sage (Salvia officinalis), as well as in all trees of the arborvitae group, of which the thuja (Thuja occidentalis), or white cedar, is one. It is also characteristic of most species of Artemisia, a genus within the Compositae, or daisy, family. Wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) and Roman wormwood (Artemisia pontica) were the main sources of the thujone in absinthe.
Wormwood (in French, absinthe; in German, Wermut) is an herb with a perennial root system from which arise branched, firm, leafy stems that are almost woody at the base and reach a height of two to three feet. Its flowers are tiny, greenish-yellow and globular, and its indented leaves have a silvery-gray sheen. The species was cultivated from the Middle Ages to the early part of the 20th century.
The earliest recorded use of wormwood comes from the Ebers Papyrus, copies of which date from 1550 B.C. but which include writings from 3550 B.C. To the Egyptians, wormwood, or a closely related species, had religious as well as medicinal significance. The “wormwood” that is mentioned seven times in the King James’ version of the Bible was probably not Artemisia absinthium, but Artemisia judaica. Pliny’s Historia Naturalis, written in the first century A.D., describes extracts of wormwood as being of great antiquity (even then!) and having longstanding utility against gastrointestinal worms (hence the name). Thujone does indeed stun roundworms, which are then expelled by normal peristaltic action of the intestine.