The name of the condition, which has its roots in the Mediterranean island of Sardinia, derives from the appearance of raised eyebrows and an open "grin" – which can appear sardonic or malevolent to the lay observer – displayed by those suffering from these muscle spasms.
In 2009 scientists at the University of Eastern Piedmont in Italy claimed to have identified hemlock water dropwort (Oenanthe crocata) as the plant historically responsible for producing the sardonic grin. This plant is the most likely candidate for the "sardonic herb," which was a neurotoxic plant used for the ritual killing of elderly people in pre-Roman Sardinia.
In popular culture
Arthur Conan Doyle's hero Sherlock Holmes used the term to describe the facial distortion of the murder victim Bartholomew Sholto in Doyle's story The Sign of the Four. This also led to Dr. Watson confirming strychnine poisoning.
In his song "The Irish Ballad", Tom Lehrer portrayed a poisoning victim as dying "with a spoon in her hand/And her face in a hideous grin".
- "Tetanus". World Health Organization.
- Bryson, Peter D. (1996). Comprehensive Reviews in Toxicology: For Emergency Clinicians. CRC Press. p. 791. ISBN 978-1560326120.
- News Scan Briefs: Killer Smile, Scientific American, August 2009
- G. Appendino; F. Pollastro; L. Verotta; M. Ballero; A. Romano; P. Wyrembek; K. Szczuraszek; J. W. Mozrzymas; O. Taglialatela-Scafati (2009). "Polyacetylenes from Sardinian Oenanthe fistulosa: A Molecular Clue to risus sardonicus". Journal of Natural Products 72 (5): 962–965. doi:10.1021/np8007717. PMC 2685611. PMID 19245244.