Acetylsalicylic acid, or ASA, as it’s commonly known among scientists, is a toxin found in the bark of European willow trees, and a major component of aspirins and other analgesics, according to Mark Siddall, curator of “The Power of Poison,” an exhibition that debuts at New York’s American Museum of Natural History on November 16, 2013. “We also know lots of plants have salicylate compounds in them, like wintergreen—if you crush it, it smells like wintergreen flavoring used in gum—but all of these toxins have varying degrees of aspirin-like qualities,” he says.
Quinine is derived from the bark of the Cinchona tree and was well known in South America as a treatment for malaria. According to Peter Macinnis, an Australian science writer and author of “Poisons: From Hemlock to Botox to the Killer Bean of Calabar,” a Jesuit took it back to Europe, where malaria was also common, as it was around Washington, D.C., in the mid-19th century, and the British planted the tree in all of their colonies where malaria was prevalent. “[English politician and statesman] Oliver Cromwell died of malaria because he refused to take the ‘Jesuit’s bark,’” Macinnis says.
Now, quinine and its derivatives are used all over the world as a treatment for malaria and figure widely in drugs such as Cholorquine.
Atropine, which comes from the Atropa belladonna plant, or Deadly Nightshade as it’s more commonly called, is used in eye drops because of its ability to dilate the pupils. In its pure form, though, belladonna is highly poisonous, Siddall says, but therapeutically, it has several uses and was a major component of Bromoquinine, a very popular cold remedy in the 1920s that was also used as an anti-malarial medication.
Long before they were used in hallucinogenic drugs, opiates, which are derived from the opium poppy and can be toxic in high doses, were used for back pain relief, Macinnis says. Today, they continue to figure in drugs such as OxyContin, a prescription pain reliever.
“The anti-cancer drug Taxol (paclitaxel) is extracted from the bark and needles of yew trees [which are poisonous],” Macinnis says. “It is federally approved in the U.S. for treating breast and ovarian cancers, and now is finding a range of new uses, including esophageal cancer and the AIDS-related Kaposi’s sarcoma.”