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Truth about a plant with many names


In the portrayal in Books & Arts of the University History Museum in Pavia, northern Italy (Nature 451, 526, 2008), the naturalist Giovanni Antonio Scopoli — one of Pavia's many famous professors — is linked with the drug scopolamine. But although the two are connected, the compound was in fact named after the plant from which it is derived, Scopolia carniolica.

Indeed, Scopoli (1723–1788) was also a physician. He worked for a time at the huge 500-year-old mercury mine in Idrija in Carniola, now part of Slovenia, and recorded the adverse effects of mercury in miners. In this mountainous region, he studied the local plants and published his findings in the famous Flora Carniolica in 1760 and 1772, and corresponded in Latin with the Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus.

The scopolamine-containing plant was first described in 1569 by Pietro Andrea Mattioli and was identified by Scopoli in the forests around Idrija as Lithophila. The Vienna court botanist Nikolaus Joseph von Jacquin in 1764 changed the name to Scopola carniolica, in honour of the great naturalist. However, Scopoli avoided using the name, as 'scopola' is an insult in Venetian dialect, indicating a slap in the face. Linnaeus changed the name to Hyoscyamus scopolia in 1767, and in 1790 the genus name Scopolia was adopted.

About 100 years later, Ernst A. Schmidt at the University of Marburg isolated an alkaloid constituent from Scopolia carniolica's dried rhizome, naming the drug scopolamine. This sedative has also been used by ophthalmologists and as a 'truth serum' during the Cold War.

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Kreft, M., Zorec, R. Truth about a plant with many names. Nature 452, 934 (2008).

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