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Croton oil (Crotonis oleum) is an oil prepared from the seeds of Croton tiglium, a tree belonging to the natural order Euphorbiales and family Euphorbiaceae, and native or cultivated in India and the Malay Archipelago. Small doses taken internally cause diarrhea. Externally, the oil can cause irritation and swelling. In traditional Chinese medicine it is used as an ingredient in some liniments.
Croton oil is the source of the organic compound phorbol. Today croton oil is the basis of rejuvenating chemical peels, due to the caustic exfoliating effects it has on the dermal components of the skin. Used in conjunction with phenol solutions, it results in an intense reaction which leads to initial skin sloughing and then eventual regeneration. Tumor promotion activity was traced to phorbol esters present in croton oil. Pure phorbol 12-myristate 13-acetate is now used widely for laboratory study of tumor development.
During World War II, the United States Navy added a small amount of croton oil to the neutral grain spirits which powered torpedoes. The oil was intended to prevent sailors from drinking the alcohol fuel. Sailors devised crude stills to separate the alcohol from the croton oil, as alcohol evaporates at a lower temperature than croton oil. Norwegian partisans, ordered by the Quisling government to turn over a catch of sardines to the Nazi German government for shipment to Saint-Nazaire (a U-boat base of operations) arranged with the British for a large shipment of croton oil to flavor the sardines, whose fishy taste was expected to conceal the tampering.
In "The Bulletin" (9 Dowry Square, Hot Wells, May 29, 1845) by the Reverend Richard Harris Barham, a medically inspired poem to relieve the anxiety of a very dear friend, and written a month before Barham's death on June 17, 1845, the attending doctor to his patient advises amongst other treatments for a sore throat that is producing barely a sound: "... Please put out your tongue again!/Now the blister!/Ay, the blister!/ Let your son, or else his sister,/Warm it well, then clap it here, sir,/All across from ear to ear, sir;/That suffices,/When it rises,/Snip it, sir, and then your throat on/Rub a little oil of Croton:/Never mind a little pain!/Please put out your tongue again! ..." The patient was Barham, who had accidentally swallowed a piece of pear core that got into his windpipe on October 28, 1844. "Despite" the "professional" advice and the very painful and "highest quality" treatments of the time being given freely to him by Doctors Roberts and Scott, and the eminent surgeon Mr. Coulson, for "violent vomiting", "inflamed throat", and then catching "a cold" in April 1845, Barham died.
In popular culture
In El Dorado starring John Wayne, cayenne pepper, mustard (the hot kind), ipecac, asafoetida, croton oil, and gunpowder are the ingredients in an emetic administered to Robert Mitchum's drunken sheriff to sober him up and prevent him from drinking for the foreseeable future. Arthur Hunnicutt's character Bull expresses great surprise that the extract's use will be risked.
In Bernard Cornwell's American Civil War novel Copperhead, croton oil is used to torture the protagonist, Nathaniel Starbuck, in an attempt to get him to confess to a crime. In the sequel, The Bloody Ground, an officer of the punishment battalion Starbuck is in command of, rubs croton oil into his face (causing sores) to make it appear he has a skin disease which makes it impossible for him to fight.
In the end of little-known Portuguese author Maria Archer's book "Casa sem pão" (A house without bread), the protagonist, Adriana, uses croton oil to kill her husband, thus exacting revenge on him for many years of unhappy and unfaithful marriage.
- Meyer-Bertenrath, JG (1969). "150 Years of croton oil research". Experientia 25 (1): 1–5. doi:10.1007/BF01903855. PMID 4885798.
- E. Hecker (1967-01-31). "Phorbol esters from croton oil: Chemical nature and biological activities". Naturwissenschaften.
- PubMed search for "croton oil"
- Ostlund, Mike. Find 'em, chase 'em, sink 'em, Globe Pequot, 2006, p. 88. ISBN 1-59228-862-6
- William B. Breuer (2002). Deceptions of World War II. Wiley & Sons.