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History of Coca - The Divine Plant of the Incas

History of Coca - "The Divine Plant of the Incas"
by Dr. W. Golden Mortimer
Fellow of the New York Academy of Medicine
publ. by J. H. Vail & Co. (1901), dedicated to Angelo Mariani, a recognized exponent of the "divine plant", and the first to render coca available to the world

Note: a 28 megabyte scanned version of this book is available in PDF form. Page references below correspond to pages in the book as seen in the PDF file.


[Page 401] ... In the history of Coca, that shrub has been so intimately associated with everyday customs of the simple people of its native land, that its actual merit remained uninvestigated for ages. For aside from the Spanish prejudice against its employment, the use of Coca was so general that any special effort to seriously study its true qualities seemed unnecessary.

[page 406] ... For more than three centuries the information that had come to the world in regard to Coca had been chiefly of a theoretical nature. The writings of travellers and of missionaries who were located in the sections of South America where Coca was used, had prepared the way for a scientific investigation of its properties as soon as there was a possibility of such work being done with exactitude. After the botanists had classified the plant, and chemists had begim to search for the hidden properties of its traditional action, the researches of the physiologists soon followed.

[page 407] In Europe the attention of the medical profession was directed to the action of Coca through a widely circulated paper by Dr. Mantegazza, who experimented upon himself, using the leaves both by chewing and in infusion. His description, while somewhat fanciful and full of imagination, fairly illustrates the physiological action of Coca, provided it is appreciated that observations made by an experimenter upon his own person are necessarily influenced by the temperament of the individual. He found from masticating a drachm of the dried leaves: "An aromatic taste in the mouth, an increased flow of saliva, and a feeling of comfort in the stomach, as though a frugal meal had been eaten with a good appetite." Following a second and a third dose there was a slight burning sensation in the mouth and pharynx with an increased pulse beat, while digestion seemed to be more active. Through the influence of Coca the entire muscular system is increased in strength with a feeling of agility and an impulse to exertion quite different from the exaltation following alcohol. While from the latter there may be increased activity, it will be of an irregular character, but Coca promotes a gradual augmenting of vigor with a desire to put this newly acquired strength in action. Mantegazza found that the intellectual sphere participates in the general exaltation produced by Coca, ideas flow with ease and regularity, the influence being quite different from that induced by alcohol and resembling in some degree that from small doses of opium. After drinking an infusion of four drachms of leaves he experienced a peculiar feeling as though isolated from the external world, with an irresistible inclination to exertion, which was ...

[page 408] ... performed with phenomenal ease, so that though in his normal condition he natnrally avoided unnecessary exercise, he was now so agile as to jump upon the writing table, which he did without breaking the lamp or other objects upon it. Following this period of activity came a state of quietness accompanied by a feeling of intense comfort, consciousness being all the time perfectly clear. The experimenter took as much as eighteen drachms of leaves in one day, which is about the amount ordinarily consumed by the Serrano of the Andes. Under this increased dose the pulse was raised to one hundred and thirty-four, and when mental exhilaration was most intense he exclaimed to his colleagues who were watching the result of his investigation: "God is unjust because he has created man incapable to live forever happy." And again: "I prefer a life of ten years with Coca to a life of a million centuries without Coca." Following these experiments, during which he had abstained from any food but Coca for forty hours, he took a short sleep of three hours, from which he woke without any feeling of indisposition.

Dr. Mantegazza announced as a result of the studies made upon himself and verified upon other subjects that Coca, chewed or taken in a weak infusion, has a stimulating effect on the nerves of the stomach and facilitates digestion. That it increases the animal heat, and the frequency of the pulse and respiration. That it excites the nervous system in such a manner that the movements of the muscles are made with greater ease, after which it has a calming effect, while in large doses it may cause cerebral congestion and hallucinations. He asserted that: "The principal property of Coca, which is not to be found in any other remedy, consists in its exalting effect, calling out the power of the organism without leaving any sign of debility, in which respect Coca is one of the most powerful nervines and analeptics." From these conclusions he advocated the use of Coca in disorders of the alimentary tract, in debility following fevers, in anrnmic conditions, in hysteria and hypochondriasis, even when the latter has increased to suicidal intent.

[page 409] He considered that Coca might be used with benefit in certain mental diseases where opium is commonly prescribed, and was convinced of its sedative effect in spinal irritation, idiopathic convulsions and nervous erethism, and suggested its use in the largest doses in cases of hydrophobia and tetanus.

[page 422] A physiological study of all the Coca products has not been made, but Professor Ralph Stockmann* instituted an important research in this direction at the University of Edinburgh. From these experiments, it has been shown that the action of certain of the Coca alkaloids is directly upon muscular, tissue; notably among these may be mentioned ecognine, henzoyl-ecognine, cocamine and hygrine. The influence of ecgonine upon the central nervous system is so mild that only large doses occasion slight depression, followed by increase of reflex irritability of the spinal cord which may last for several days. The substance has no anaesthetic properties, and the motor nerves are not specially influenced. There is, however, a lessening of the irritability of muscles, those having the largest blood supply being most deeply affected. When the drug was pushed to poisonous doses death followed from extension of the rigor mortis to a large number of muscles. The effect of benzoyl-ecgonine is directly upon muscle in a manner somewhat similar to caffeine, inasmuch as it provokes a muscular stiffness; this was followed, as late as the third or fourth day, by a slight increase in reflex excitability which upon increase of the drug tended to tetanus. This late manifestation of spinal symptoms is due to the fact that benzoylecgonine has so great an affinity for muscle, that it is imbibed by adjacent muscles so thoroughly that the more distant structures receive at first very little of the drug. ... Cocamine, which is a local anaesthetic, bears a nearer resemblance to cocaine in its action than do the other Coca alkaloids. While it exhibits the effect of a general stimulant its action is so specifically upon muscle that its influence on the spinal cord is masked.

[page 423] ... Cocamine, which is more lethal than is cocaine, when given in a small dose to a eat, occasioned excitement, dilatation of the pupils, twitching of the tail, ears, etc., while an increased dose caused muscular and nervous depression, vomiting, diarrhoea and weakness of gait, all of muscular origin. ... Hygrine, injected under the skin of a frog, occasioned depression, weakness in gait and dullness for a day or two, with tendency to starting and tremors.

[page 424] ... In considering the action of any of the Coca alkaloids on man, it may be well to suggest that possibly one cause of conflicting testimony may have resulted from reporting the influence of the alkaloid upon animals, the effects of which are not always uniform with their action on man. ... Both alcohol and opium seriously disturb the normal relations of one part of the brain with another, the nerve centers being paralyzed in the inverse order of their development. The primary exhilaration being succeeded by a narcotic action when the inhibitory paralysis permits the emotions full sway. Coca, however, appears to stimulate tlie brain by an harmonious influence on all the brain cells so the relation of its functions is not deranged.

The action of cocaine has been placed midway between morphine and caffeine. In man the initial effect of Coca is sedative, followed by a rapidly succeeding and long continued stimulation. This may be attributed to the conjoined influence of the associate alkaloids upon the spinal cord and brain, whereby the conducting powers of the spinal cord are more depressed than are the brain centers.

[page 425] ... The action of Coca and cocaine, while similar, is different. Each gives a peculiar sense of well being, but cocaine affects the central nervous system more pronouncedly than does Coca, not -- as commonly presumed -- because it is Coca in a more concentrated form, but because the associate substances present in Coca, which are important in modifying its action, are not present in cocaine. The sustaining influence of Coca has been asserted to be due to its anesthetic action on the stomach, and to its stimulating effect on brain and nervous system. But the strength-giving properties of Coca, aside from mild stimulation to the central nervous system, are embodied in its associate alkaloids, which directly bear upon the muscular system, as well as the depurative influence which Coca has upon the blood, freeing it from the products of tissue waste. The quality of Coca we have seen is governed by the variety of the leaf, and its action is influenced by the relative proportion of associate alkaloids present. If these be chiefly cocaine or its homologues the influence is central, while if the predominant alkaloids are cocamine or benzoyl ecgonine, there will be more pronounced influence on muscle. When the associate bodies are present in such proportion as to maintain a balance between the action upon the nervous system and the conjoined action upon the muscular system, the effect of Coca is one of general invigoration.

[page 427] ... As may be inferred from its physiological action. Coca as a remedial agent is adapted to a wide sphere of usefulness, and if we accept the hypothesis that the influence of Coca is to free the blood from waste and to repair tissue, we have a ready explanation of its action. Bartholow says: "It is probable that some of the constituents of Coca are utilized in the economy as food, and that the retardation of tissue-waste is not the sole reason why work may be done by its use which can not be done by the same person without it."

[page 428] Stockmann considers that the source of endurance from Coca can hardly depend solely upon the stimulation of the nervous system, but that there must at the same time be an economizing in the bodily exchange. An idea which is further confirmed by the total absence of emaciation or other injurious consequences in the Indians who constantly use Coca. He suggests that Coca may possibly diminish the consumption of carbohydrates by the muscles during exertion. If this is so, then less oxygen would be required, and there is an explanation of the influence of Coca in relieving breathlessness in ascending mountains.

Prominent in the application of Coca is its antagonism to the alcohol and opium habit. Freud, of Vienna, considers that Coca not only allays the craving for morphine, but that relapses do not occur. Coca certainly will check the muscle racking pains incidental to abandonment of opium by an habitue, and its use is well indicated in the condition following the abuse of alcohol when the stomach can not digest food. It not only allays the necessity for food, but removes the distressing nervous phenomena. Dr. Bauduy, of St. Louis, early called the attention of the American Neurological Association to the efhciency of Coca in the treatment of melancholia, and the benefit of Coca in a long list of nervous or nerveless conditions has been extolled by a host of physicians."

[page 431] It is a noteworthy fact already referred to, that there has been no recorded case of poisoning from Coca, nor cases of Coca addiction commonly regarded as "habit". The cases of cocaine poisoning and addiction often sensationally reported are even open to grave doubt. The condition termed "cocaine habit" is not generally accepted by physicians, as shown in the specific report in the appendix.

[page 434] ... There is but one further feature in the physiological study of Coca that we have to consider, and that is the manner of its elimination from the body. From experiments of Dr. Helmsing, it was long since determined that cocaine is very difficult of detection in animal tissues. This may be appreciated when the important role which it is possible that Coca plays in assimilation is considered. When taken into the stomach Coca soon disappears from the alimentary canal, being decomposed and gradually setting free the products to which its physiological action is due. As these several alkaloids are carried through the tissues, they enter into further chemical change whereby they are still further broken down, and only soon after the administration of a very large dose is it possible to recover the bases from the alkaline urine with benzoyl. ... The fact that the Coca products are so thoroughly consumed in the body indicates the important influence these substances exercise in nutrition, the philosophy of which has been more fully detailed in other chapters.

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