1951 Pont-Saint-Esprit mass poisoning

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The 1951 Pont-Saint-Esprit mass poisoning, also known as Le Pain Maudit, was a mass poisoning on 15 August 1951, in the small town of Pont-Saint-Esprit in southern France. More than 250 people were involved, including 50 persons interned in asylums and 7 deaths. A foodborne illness was suspected, and among these it was originally believed to be a case of "cursed bread" (pain maudit).

A majority of academic sources accept ergot poisoning as the cause of the epidemic,[1][2][3][4][5] while a few theorize other causes such as poisoning by mercury, mycotoxins, or nitrogen trichloride.

Background[edit]

During the Vichy government, the supply of grains from field to mill to bakery was directed by the government's grain control board, the Office National Interprofessionnel des Céréales (ONIC), and later the Union Meuniere. Essentially, this created a government monopoly on the sale of flour, allowing the government a measure of control over wartime supply shortages.[6] This also meant that flour would be purchased directly from ONIC, and delivered to the baker for a set price, without the baker being able to have any control on quality.[7] Following the end of the second world war, this system is relaxed, allowing for bakers to have some choice over their flour supply. The ONIC would retain its monopoly on inter-departmental exportation and importation. This system meant that millers in departments with more supply than demand could sell the excess to ONIC. In practice, this meant that the higher-quality flour would be delivered to local bakers, and lower quality flour would be exported to other departments. As such, departments with net flour deficit, like the Gard department in which is located Pont-Saint-Esprit, would be supplied with lower quality flour from other departments through the intermediary of ONIC, with the bakers having virtually no choice in the decision of the provenance or quality of their flour. [8]:224-225

Previous sanitary events[edit]

In the weeks preceding the outbreak, a number of villages near Pont-Saint-Esprit reported outbreaks of food poisoning via bread. These outbreaks are all linked to bakeries that make their bread with most if not all of their flour supplied by the mill of Maurice Maillet, in Saint-Martin-la-Riviere. The symptoms reported are milder than those reported in Pont-Saint-Esprit.

At Issirac, at least 20 people report cutaneous eruptions, diarrhea, vomiting and headaches. Similar symptoms are reported in Laval-Saint-Roman. Multiple families are reported sick in Goudargues and Lamotte-du-Rhone.

In Connaux, the town’s baker receives reports from his clients that they believe his bread is causing violent diarrhea. He reports that his family, as well as himself, are all suffering from the same afflictions. The baker is quick to blame his flour, which he describes as “bad, forming a sticky dough with acid fermentation” and which makes gray and sticky bread.

In Saint-Genies-de-Comolas, the town’s mayor is alerted by one of the town’s two bakers that he received flour that was gray and full of worms. The mayor banned making bread with that flour, and referred the situation to the regions prefect, as well as to the driver that delivered the flour.

The delivery driver, Jean Bousquet, would expedite to the prefect a copy of a remark made to his employer, the miller’s union in Nimes, on 9 August. In which, he writes that “almost every baker of Centre de Bagnols/Cèze has complained of the quality of the flour provided by Mr. Maillet”. Following the incident at Connaux, Bousquet would request immediate written instructions from his employer regarding the situation. On the 13th of August, he requested that samples were to be taken to determine if the flour was contaminated. During this period, 42 bakers would complain of the flour delivered by Bousquet.[8]:438

Mass poisoning[edit]

On the 16th of August 1951, the local offices of the town's two doctors were filled with patients reporting similar food poisoning symptoms; nausea, vomiting, cold chills, heat waves. These symptoms would eventually worsen, with added hallucinatory crises and convulsions. The situation in the town deteriorates in the following days. On the night of the 24th, a man believes himself to be an airplane and dies by jumping from a second-storey window and across town, an 11-year old boy strangles his mother. One of the town's two doctors would name the night nuit d'apocalypse; apocalyptic night. [9]

Epidemiological investigation[edit]

Doctors Vieu and Gabbai investigated the epidemiology of the disease. On the 19th, they came to the conclusion that bread was to blame; all patients interrogated had purchased their bread at the Briand bakery in Pont-Saint-Esprit. A family from a neighboring village who had 4 out of 9 members fall ill showed that all members who ate bread from the Briand bakery fell ill, while none of the others who ate bread from another bakery did. Another family shared a loaf of Briand’s bread amongst 5 of the 7 members, the others preferring biscottes, with only the 5 falling ill.

On the morning of the 20th, the health service, the prefecture, the prosecutor of the Republic and the police were notified. Roch Briand is interrogated, and finds himself surprised that the sickness that has befallen the town is blamed on his bread. [8]

Criminal investigation[edit]

The police investigation would eventually center on the second of three batches of bread made at Briand’s bakery on the day of 16 August. The flour composition of each batch varied, as having run out of flour during the preparation of the second batch, Briand had borrowed flour from two other local bakers, Jaussent and Fallavet. Briand’s assistant would indicate that when he picked up flour from Jaussent, the baker was out ill, and took the flour from his assistant instead.

Both Briand and his assistant would agree that the first batch was constituted of the previous day’s flour mixed with flour borrowed from Jaussent. They disagree on the second and third batch, while Briand states that the 2nd was made with Jaussent’s flour and the 3rd made with Fallavet’s flour, the assistant stated that both latter batches were made with a mix of the two.

The investigation would lead police to interrogate many of the town’s residents, who would give inconsistent ratings on Briand’s tainted batch. Some reported that the taste was perfectly normal, while others reported chemical smells (one would relate it as an odor of gasoline, another would liken it to bleach), some reported that the bread looked normal, while others stated that its appearance was grayish. [8]:319

Inquiry[edit]

On the 23rd of August, a judge of inquiry opened a formal investigation, and tasked commissaire Georges Sigaud with finding the cause of the mass poisoning event.

The tainted bread made by Briand was made with only 4 ingredients; flour, yeast, water and salt. It was possible to easily discount all ingredients but flour as potential vectors for the illness. The water used to made the bread was from a municipal source, the same that also supplied the rest of the village. Both the salt and the yeast used by Briand were sourced from the same suppliers as all other bakers in the region, and subsequent testing of the supplies found no toxicity. [8]:432

The investigation of the provenance of the flour lead Sigaud to the UM-Gard flour distribution centre, in Bagnols-sur-Cèze. The chief of the distribution network, Jean Bousquet, stated that since the end of July, the vast majority of the flour supplying the region was from two mills; one in Châtillon-sur-Indre, and the other being the mill of Maurice Maillet in Saint-Martin-la-Rivière, the latter of which was the subject of numerous complaints with regards to the quality of its flour. [8]:436

Maurice Maillet[edit]

In an interrogation that lasted multiple hours, Maurice Maillet denied mixing rye (which is highly suceptible to ergot) into his flour; opting instead to cut his product with 2% of bean flour. This was unusual, since due to a shortage of wheat, ONIC would mandate that rye flour be mixed in. However, in the Vienne department, rye of good quality was often more expensive than wheat, and as such, bean flour was authorised by ONIC as a replacement.[8]:459

Despite this, it came to light that the supply of grains to be milled for export was sometimes mixed with grains milled in an informal agreement called échangisme. Under this type of agreement, often practiced at the time, a farmer would bring a baker grain they grew themselves in exchange for bread that would later be made with his grain. The baker would bring the grains to the miller, who would mill the grains. The miller and baker would each take a cut for sale.[8]:452-458

During the interrogation, Maillet would admit that he had made a deal with a baker, Guy Bruère, who had brought in bags to be milled. Since this was nearing the end of the season, the bags were filled with leftover grains that, sometimes, contained a high proportion of rye. The rye was not the only problem with the flour; as the miller also noted the presence of weevils, mites and dust. The baker was concerned that he would lose business should he refuse the grains on the basis of quality. Despite the miller having picked up on the low quality of the grains, he would nevertheless agree to exchange the grains for a lower quantity of flour already milled from grains marked for exportation. Being that the quantity of lower quality grains was eclipsed by the vast amount of grains for export, the miller thought that it would be possible to mix it all without decreasing the overall quality of the flour. [8]:461-467

Arrests and trial[edit]

On the 31st of August, around 14:30, Sigaud addresses the media, announcing the arrests of Maillet and Bruère for involuntary manslaughter and involuntary injuries regarding their negligence in trading improper flour. Further arrests are made in the following days; an employee of Maillet, André Bertrand, is arrested, but released on bail as he is the head of a family of 9 whose wife is about to give birth. Additionally, the owners of the bakery at which Bruère was employed, Clothaire and Denise Audidier, are arrested for infractions to fiscal legislation and infraction regarding the legislation on wheat and flour. [8]:471

Scientific publishing[edit]

Shortly after the incident, in September 1951, Dr. Gabbai joined by a few collegues published a paper in the British Medical Journal declaring that "the outbreak of poisoning" was produced by ergot fungus.[10] The victims appeared to have one common connection. They had eaten bread from the bakery of Roch Briand who was subsequently blamed for using flour made from contaminated rye. Additionally, animals who had eaten the bread were found to have also perished.[10] According to reports at the time, the flour had been contaminated by a fungus known as Claviceps Purpurea (ergot) which produces alkaloids similar to the hallucinogenic drug lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).

Other theories[edit]

Later investigations suggested mercury poisoning due to the use of Panogen or other fungicides used to treat grains and seeds.[11]

This type of contamination was considered due to some fluorescent stains being present on the outside of some used empty flour bags returned to the distributor. Panogen was sold containing a red colorant as a safety measure, to ensure that seeds coated with it be used for planting only. Subsequent scientific tests showed that this coloring would not permeate through flour bags, but the active ingredient could do so. This would allow for thorough contamination of the flour, but would appear to be limited to the bags. Further testing showed that if bread were to be baked using Panogen-contaminated flour, the rising of the bread could be partially or totally inhibited, depending on the concentration. This hypothesis was considered thoroughly in a French civil trial regarding the accident, with the contamination mechanism being a train wagon carrying flour that could have previously carried concentrated cylinders of Panogen intended for agricultural uses. [8] It was later discovered that pre-treating the seeds in Panogen could lead to mercury accumulation in the plants growing from those seeds. For this reason, Panogen, made by a Swedish company, was banned in Sweden in 1966. A revised version of the ban, in 1970, would prohibit the exportation of Panogen, leading to its removal from the market. [12]

In 1982, a French researcher suggested Aspergillus fumigatus, a toxic fungus produced in grain silos, as a potential culprit.[13]

Historian Steven Kaplan’s 2008 book, Le Pain Maudit argues that the poisoning might have been caused by nitrogen trichloride used to artificially (and illegally) bleach flour.[8][14]

Conspiracy theory[edit]

In his 2009 book, A Terrible Mistake, author Hank P. Albarelli Jr originated a conspiracy theory claiming that the Special Operations Division of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) tested the use of LSD on the population of Pont-Saint-Esprit as part of its MKNAOMI biological warfare program in a field test called “Project SPAN”.[15][16]

In popular culture[edit]

Barbara Comyns wrote her third novel, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead (1954), after reading about the poisoning.[17]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Gabbai, Lisbonne and Pourquier (15 September 1951). "Ergot Poisoning at Pont St. Esprit". British Medical Journal. 2 (4732): 650–651. doi:10.1136/bmj.2.4732.650. PMC 2069953. PMID 14869677.
  2. ^ Stanley Finger (2001). Origins of Neuroscience: A History of Explorations into Brain Function. Oxford University Press. p. 221. ISBN 978-0-19-514694-3.
  3. ^ Jeffrey C. Pommerville; I. Edward Alcamo (2012). Alcamo's Fundamentals of Microbiology: Body Systems Edition. Jones & Bartlett Publishers. p. 734. ISBN 978-1-4496-0594-0.
  4. ^ Istituto internazionale di storia economica F. Datini. Settimana di studio; Simonetta Cavaciocchi (2010). Economic and biological interactions in pre-industrial Europe, from the 13th to the 18th century. Firenze University Press. p. 82. ISBN 978-88-8453-585-6.
  5. ^ Frederick Burwick (2010). Poetic Madness and the Romantic Imagination. Penn State Press. p. 180. ISBN 978-0-271-04296-1.
  6. ^ Fuller, John G. (1968). The Day of St. Anthony's Fire (PDF). Signet Books. p. 15. ISBN 9780090954605. ...the Union Meuniere, the giant distribution organization of France that supplies flour to the bakers through its distributors at strategically located centers throughout the country. It is not a union in the labor sense of the word. As a state-supervised private monopoly, its responsibilities are well defined, and its distribution is patterned so that if one department -as the regional sections of France are called -is lacking in flour, another will provide what is necessary to keep the distribution on an even keel.
  7. ^ Jacobson, Jonathan (8 March 2019). "What drove an entire French town mad on a summer day in 1951". Haaretz.com. Retrieved 26 July 2020.
  8. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Kaplan, Steven (2008). Fayard (ed.). Le Pain Maudit. ISBN 978-2-213-63648-1.
  9. ^ Lamoureux, Nathalie (9 July 2012). "1951 : trip sous acide à Pont-Saint-Esprit". Le Point (in French). Retrieved 21 July 2020.
  10. ^ a b Gabbai; Lisbonne; Pourquier (15 September 1951). "Ergot Poisoning at Pont St. Esprit". British Medical Journal. 2 (4732): 650–651. doi:10.1136/bmj.2.4732.650. PMC 2069953. PMID 14869677.
  11. ^ Jonathan Ott, Pharmacotheon: Entheogenic Drugs, their Plant Sources and History (Kennewick, W.A.: Natural Products Co., 1993), pg. 145. See also Dr. Albert Hofmann, LSD: My Problem Child (New York, N.Y.: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1980), Chapter 1: "How LSD Originated," pg. 6.
  12. ^ United States. Congress. Senate. Commerce. (1973). Offshore Marine Environment Protection Act of 1973, hearings before ..., 93-1, march 5, 6, and 12, 1973. pp. 135–136. OCLC 77647957.
  13. ^ Moreau, C. (1982). "Les mycotoxines neurotropes de l'Aspergillus fumigatus; une hypothèse sur le "pain maudit" de Pont-Saint-Esprit". Bulletin de la Société Mycologique de France (98): 261–273.
  14. ^ Quand le pain empoisonne, La Vie des idées, 3 September 2008 (in French)
  15. ^ Josset, Christophe. "Did the CIA poison a French town with LSD?". france24.com. France 24. Retrieved 21 July 2020.
  16. ^ "CIA spiked baguettes with LSD, new evidence suggests". www.rfi.fr. Radio France Internationale. Retrieved 21 July 2020.
  17. ^ Comyns, Barbara (1981). The Vet's Daughter. Virago. pp. xv.