Author(s): Erbguth FJ
Food-borne botulism probably has accompanied mankind since its beginning. However, we have only few historical sources and documents on food poisoning before the 19th century. Some ancient dietary laws and taboos may reflect some knowledge about the life-threatening consumption of poisoned food. One example of such a dietary taboo is the 10th century edict of Emperor Leo VI of Byzantium in which manufacturing of blood sausages was forbidden. Some ancient case reports on intoxications with Atropa belladonna probably described patients with food-borne botulism, because the combination of dilated pupils and fatal muscle paralysis cannot be attributed to an atropine intoxication. At the end of the 18th century, some well-documented outbreaks of "sausage poisoning" in Southern Germany, especially in Württemberg, prompted early systematic botulinum toxin research. The German poet and district medical officer Justinus Kerner (1786-1862) published the first accurate and complete descriptions of the symptoms of food-borne botulism between 1817 and 1822. Kerner did not succeed in defining the suspected "biological poison" which he called "sausage poison" or "fatty poison." However, he developed the idea of a possible therapeutic use of the toxin. Eighty years after Kerner's work, in 1895, a botulism outbreak after a funeral dinner with smoked ham in the small Belgian village of Ellezelles led to the discovery of the pathogen Clostridium botulinum by Emile Pierre van Ermengem, Professor of bacteriology at the University of Ghent. The bacterium was so called because of its pathological association with the sausages (Latin word for sausage = "botulus") and not-as it was suggested-because of its shape. Modern botulinum toxin treatment was pioneered by Alan B. Scott and Edward J. Schantz.