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Waterton's Wanderings.
The Wanderings - Curare (Wourali)

Strychnos-toxifera-Köhler-1887Curare (known to Waterton as 'Wourali') is a common name for various plant extract alkaloid arrow poisons.

It is a drug belonging to the alkaloid family of organic compounds, derivatives of which are used in modern medicine primarily as skeletal muscle relaxants, being administered concomitantly with general anesthesia for certain types of surgeries, particularly those of the chest and the abdomen.

Curare is of botanical origin; its sources include various tropical American plants (primarily Chondrodendron species of the family Menispermaceae and Strychnos species of the family Loganiaceae).

Curare (Wourali) was used as a paralyzing poison by South American indigenous people. The prey was shot by arrows or blowpipe darts dipped in curare, leading to asphyxiation owing to the inability of the victim's respiratory muscles to contract.

The word 'curare' is derived from wurari, from the Carib language of the Macusi Indians of Guyana.Curare is also known among indigenous peoples as Ampi, Woorari, Woorara, Woorali, Wourali, Wouralia, Ourare, Ourari, Urare, Urari, and Uirary

Curare causes weakness of the skeletal muscles and, when administered in a sufficient dose, eventual death by asphyxiation due to paralysis of the diaphragm.

According to pharmacologist Rudolf Boehm's 1895 classification scheme, the three main types of curare are:

• tube or bamboo curare (so named because of its packing into hollow bamboo tubes.
• pot curare (originally packed in terra cotta pots.
• calabash or gourd curare (originally packed into hollow gourds; the main toxin is curarine).

Of these three types, some formulas belonging to the tube curare are the most toxic.

Curare is active — toxic or muscle-relaxing, depending on the intended use — only by an injection or a direct wound contamination by poisoned dart or arrow. It is harmless if taken orally because curare compounds are too large and highly charged to pass through the lining of the digestive tract to be absorbed into the blood.

For this reason, people can eat curare-poisoned prey safely. In medicine, curare has been superseded by a number of curare-like agents, such as pancuronium, which have a similar pharmacodynamic profile, but fewer side effects

Some notable dates in the history of curare:

In 1596, Sir Walter Raleigh mentioned the arrow poison in his book Discovery of the Large, Rich, and Beautiful Empire of Guiana.

1769, Edward Bancroft (1744-1821) mentions a poison 'woorara' used to poison the arrows used in blowpipes. He then describes the indians arms and the recipe for making the Accawau poison arrows (read an extract, PDF.) (8)

In 1780, Abbe Felix Fontana discovered that it acted on the voluntary muscles rather than the nerves and the heart.

During 1811–1812 Sir Benjamin Collins Brody (1783–1862) experimented with curare. He was the first to show that curare does not kill the animal and the recovery is complete if the animal's respiration is maintained artificially.

In 1832, Alexander von Humboldt gave the first western account of how the toxin was prepared from plants by Orinoco River natives.

In 1825, Charles Waterton described a classical experiment in whicha female ass, inoculated with curare, was kept alive by artificial respiration with a pair of bellows through a tracheostomy. He is also credited with bringing curare to Europe. The ass was Wouralia, there was a happy ending, read more about her.

Between 1838 and 1841, Robert Hermann Schomburgk.
There were over the years many attempts to discover the botanical constituents and to witness the preparation but probably only Waterton in 1812 and Robert Schomburgk between 1838 and 1841 were successful with the Macushi. Schomburgk was a trained botanist and identified the vine as one of the Strychnos species and gave it the now accepted name Strychnos toxifera (Figure 5). It is clear that Strychnos toxifera was quantitatively the main ingredient; the other, muramu, was there to thicken the concentrated liquor. The consistency was important because it had to stick and dry onto the tips of darts and arrows.
[Extract from 'Waterton and Wouralia' by A T Birmingham, British Journal of Pharmacology (1999) 126, 1685 -1689] [6]

George Harley (1829–1896) showed in 1850 that curare (wourali) was effective for the treatment of tetanus and strychnine poisoning.

In 1857, Claude Bernard (1813-1878) published the results of his experiments in which he demonstrated that the mechanism of action of curare was a result of interference in the conduction of nerve impulses from the motor nerve to the skeletal muscle, and that this interference occurred at the neuromuscular junction.

From 1887, the Burroughs Wellcome catalogue listed under its 'Tabloids' brand name, tablets of curare at ½ grain (price 8 shillings) for use in preparing a solution for hypodermic injection.

In 1941, Dr. Richard Evans Schultes travelled to the Colombian Amazon, where he would spend most of his field research. At first, Dr. Schultes concentrated on plants that produced curare. This substance, used by Indians as a fast-dissipating poison to hunt prey, also proved to be vital as a muscle-relaxant during major surgery in hospitals. The professor identified more than 70 plant species from which the Indians extracted curare.
(Extract from the obituary of of Dr. Schultes in New York Times, 'Richard E. Schultes, 86, Dies; Trailblazing Authority on Hallucinogenic Plants', 23rd April 2001.) [7]

More about curare

1. The source of much of the above is the Curare article on Wikipedia.
The article contains more information about curare, including numerous references. (Web page accessed 16th December 2019.)

See also:

2. Waterton's Wanderings, First Journey, Chapter 1 and Chapter 3.
3. Curare Compound in the Encyclopædia Britannica
4. Curare from Wai-Wai by Nicholas Guppy (PDF).
5. Meat For the Pot from the Wide World Magazine, by Charles Cecil Fuller (PDF).
6. 'Waterton and Wouralia' by A T Birmingham, British Journal of Pharmacology, Volume 126, Issue 8, April 1999, Pages 1685-1690. Read a PDF version.
7. More about Dr. Richard Evans Schultes, see:
  ■ Richard Evans Schultes on Wikipedia.
  ■ Richard Evans Schultes Papers at Harvard University Herbaria.
  ■ The Amazon Travels of Richard Evans Schultes, published by the Amazon Conservation Team.
8. An Essay On The Natural History of Guiana, in South America : containing a description of many curious productions in the animal and vegetable systems of that country. Together with an account of the religion, manners, and customs of several tribes of its Indian inhabitants. Interspersed with a variety of literary and medical observations. In several letters. By Edward Bancroft (1744-1821). Published 1769 by T. Becket and P. A. de Hondt, the Strand, London.

Unless otherwise stated, external web sites were accessed on 20th May 2017.

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