OLD BUT GOLD – The extraordinary story of a poisonous plant used to treat a baffling disease

TITLE: “L’erba della regina” (The Queen’s Grass) AUTHOR: Paolo Mazzarello EDITOR: Bollati Boringheri AVAILABLE: Italian only Once upon a time there was a disease, a medicine man, a plant and a Queen. It’s not the beginning of a fairy tale, but by some strange coincidences it could be. At the end of the first World War, spanish flu was devastating Europe. But there was another strange disease which was spreading silently trough the villages: Encephalitis Lethargica. The symptoms are nowadays considered a medical contradiction, but in that days they were only a mass of clinical signs. The list consisted of: high fever, slow movements, no facial expression, muscolar pains, tremors, abnormal eye movements, behavioural changes. The main characteristic of the disease is a profound  coma-like sleep. The doctor didn’t know how to face the disease. Without a treatment, the neurological and psychiatric departments were rapidly filled. In this period in Bulgaria a medicine man, Ivan Raev, treated succesfully a woman affected by Encephalitis Lethargica with a dangerous plant: Deadly Night-Shade. Without a medical degree, Raev used the only two tools in his hands: observation and his exstensive knowledge of curative plants. The news of woman was heard on the grapevine by an influent personality: Helen Queen of Italy, Victor Emmanuel’s wife. A woman, born in Montenegro, a small state on the other side of Adriatic Sea, passionate about medicine, was the trigger for a new way to approch the patients: she opened many structure where treatment was combined with physiotherapy, psychotherapy and other amenities. For this modern approach, whole of Europe looked the Italian model. Maybe the past has still something to teach us. When you read the book it’s clear that the author loves each word written. In fact he is a doctor and a college professor of Medical history. He travelled to Bulgaria in order to reconstruct the events of that period. In my opinion “The Queen’s Grass” is well worth reading. Unfortunately it has not been traslated into other languages. Nevertheless, firstly I enjoyed the style: simple and well-finished. It’s friendly also to “non- medical-readers”. Secondly, I appreciated the bibliography. It’s useful for a reader interested in the topic and it’s  an indication of scientific accuracy. Nowadays we can breath a sigh of relief because the disease has disappeard. But we can’t exclude it could return disguised in another form. However, I’m sure that if there was a similar dreadful situation, there would be also new types of powerful drugs, well-prepared doctors and passionate women.the queen's grass