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La Rivista Italiana della Medicina di Laboratorio 2019 Dicembre;15(4):305-12

DOI: 10.23736/S1825-859X.19.00035-5

Copyright © 2019 EDIZIONI MINERVA MEDICA

language: Italian

Nerium Oleander toxicology: an historical review

Giuliano DALL’OLIO

Montecchio Maggiore, Vicenza, Italia



The Nerium Oleander, known by the name Oleander, is an evergreen shrub mainly spread in the Mediterranean countries. It is studied by the botanists and ancient physicians to identify the pharmacological properties but the use in medicine is limited only to external applications, mainly in the diseases of the skin, due to the high toxicity of all its parts: roots, branches, bark, leaves, fruit, and seeds. It is the toxicology of this plant that scholars are interested in. In the nineteenth century, Matheo Orfila is one of the first to carry out experiments to identify the effects of some oleander preparations on animals, which are published in his Treatise of Poisons of 1814. The toxic properties are confirmed and the most common symptoms prove to be dizziness, vomiting, amazement, convulsions, insensitivity, often reaching death. In the course of the century, other studies continue in order to discover the chemical substance responsible for the high toxicity. In 1857, G. Latour, a French military pharmacist, believes that the toxic principle of oleander is a non-volatile yellow resinous compound that he has extracted from the various parts of the plant. In 1861, P.J. Lukomski, with a chemical procedure, separates two substances that he names oleandrine and pseudo-curarine, the first with toxic power, the other with properties similar to curarine. He tests oleandrine on animals and for it causes the same symptoms described by Orfila he can conclude that the toxicity of oleander is to be ascribed to this substance. In contrast, pseudo-curarine turns out to be active only at very high doses. E. Pelikan In 1866 demonstrates the analogy between the active ingredient of Nerium Oleander with other substances acting on the heart and in particular with digitaline. In 1865, also in Italian scientific journals can be found reports on the chemistry and toxicology of Oleander following an accidental poisoning of cattle with fodder containing shrub leaves. The episode leads to further chemical research on the plant to determine the toxic substance that had caused the death of the animals. In particular in 1875 the pharmacist Ciro Bettelli, assistant to Francesco Selmi, extracts from Nerium oleandrine and pseudo-curarine following the process of Lukomski and experimentally confirms the characteristics and the harmful properties already attributed to oleandrin. In 1881, Eusebio Finocchi poses the problem of identifying the oleandrin in the bowels of deceased people for suspect poisoning and especially the way to distinguish it from a ptomaine described by Selmi. He proposes to use the method of Jean Servais Stas studied for the extraction of the alkaloids from the organs and the intestinal contents of the cadavers, but concludes that, given the great similarity of the two substances, the chemical experts are, at that time, in the impossibility of identifying with certainty the oleandrin. In the nineteenth century scientific literature, several cases of voluntary and accidental poisoning, and more rarely for criminal purposes with the Nerium Oleander are reported.


KEY WORDS: Nerium Oleander; Toxicology; Pharmacology

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