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That Time Scientists Secretly Used Spanish Fly to Give Kids Blisters

  1. Basoodler

    "Spanish fly" refers to an actual chemical - one that is much more likely to cause blisters than arousal. It's still not okay to expose kids to it, but a secret experiment in the 1950s did exactly that.

    Spanish fly, the drug that is supposed to induce uncontrollable arousal in those who eat it, comes from an actual insect. This insect, commonly but unenticingly called the "blister beetle," does exactly what its name suggests. It gives people blisters, and that's when it is only applied externally. Swallow it, and it irritates the entire digestive system. This is where it gets its name. Some people find the slight irritation it causes the urethra sexually stimulating.

    Cantharidin, or cantharides, is the name of the substance that cause the irritation. For some time it was considered as a treatment for rheumatic fever - a type of fever that causes liquid to pool in the joints, and in more critical places, like around the heart. Not all scientists agreed, but they did know that the fever and the chemical had an effect on each other.

    So in 1952, a doctor in the UK decided to try out using cantharides on children that had rheumatic fever, just to see what happened. He used the chemical to blister the skin of their torsos. He snipped the blistered skin away with scissors and dressed the wound, noting that it healed after a few days. His conclusions were, "The blister size is reduced in acute rheumatic fever, possibly because of increased diffusion of fluid from the blister. ACTH treatment reduces blister size further, but the suggested mechanism for this is a decrease in capillary permeability."

    About forty children were subjected to the experiment, without their consent or knowledge. It was not, by any extent, the worst experiment performed on people, or even on children, but the fact that it was done to already-sick children caused a minor scandal when it came to light. The report of the next experiment with cantharides, done on patients with rheumatoid arthritis, stressed that it used "adult volunteers."

    Esther Inglis-Arkell


  1. Basoodler
    Background info on Spanish fly


    If you’ve ever been tempted to eat frogs’ legs here’s a story that might make you think again. In Nigeria in 1869, a group of French troops visited their physician, Dr J. Meynier, suffering from the same symptoms. Their stomachs ached, their mouths were dry, and they all felt weak and nauseous. Meynier might have had trouble diagnosing their condition based on these symptoms alone until his patients admitted to one further problem: they were all suffering from persistent erections. This was long before the invention of Viagra but there was another potential culprit.

    Spanish fly is one of the oldest, most legendary aphrodisiacs. It’s made from the crushed bodies of insects, which oddly enough aren’t flies and don’t come from Spain but are beetles in the family Meloidae, called blister beetles that live worldwide. The French soldiers denied using Spanish fly but did admit to supplementing their military rations eating frogs from a local stream. Was there a link between frogs and Spanish fly? The smart doctor went to the water’s edge and found frogs busily devouring a swarm of emerald coloured beetles. He surmised that whatever noxious substance is found inside these 'Spanish flies”' also hung around inside the frogs giving the troops more than they bargained for.

    The active ingredient in Spanish fly is a bicyclic terpenoid called cantharidin, an odourless, colourless solid at room temperature. Its effects on the human body have been known for millennia. The ancient Greek physician, Hippocrates, prescribed ground blister beetles as a treatment for dropsy. Traditional Chinese medicine uses blister beetle to treat piles, ulcers, and rabies. Whether any of these treatments actually work remains unclear. But there’s no doubt that Spanish fly is powerful stuff. Let a blister beetle scuttle across your hand and you better hope it’s in a good mood. When angry or alarmed, they emit cantharidin drops that will bring you out in blisters.

    Cantharidin is absorbed by lipid layers in the skin’s epidermis, disrupting transmembrane proteins that hold cells together resulting in blistering and lesions. Since the 1950s it’s been used to treat warts and another viral skin condition called molluscum contagiosum but only under strict medical supervision. Don’t go rubbing yourself with beetles.

    More dangerous is the effect of eating blister beetles. When consumed, cantharidin inflames the gastrointestinal tract and, depending on the dose, can completely strip away the stomach lining. As the kidneys try to purge the toxin from the blood it causes swelling in the urinary tract in what can appear to be arousal but is far from it: swallow two or three blister beetles and they could kill you. Cantharidin is about as toxic as cyanide and strychnine and there’s no known antidote. Notorious French aristocrat, the Marquis de Sade, got in trouble for giving prostitutes a box of chocolates laced with Spanish fly. The women survived but de Sade was sentenced to death for attempted murder.

    For beetles, on the other hand, cantharidin is an effective love potion. Prior to mating, the male blister beetle squeezes cantharidin from his knees, rolls the sticky crystal into a ball and places it on his head for the female to sniff. If she likes what she smells, she will let the male mount her. She takes his cantharidin offering and smears it all over her eggs – the noxious chemical will effectively protect her unhatched offspring from being eaten. Males of a different species, fire-coloured beetles, also offer cantharidin to potential mates but don’t make it for themselves. If he is ever to persuade a female to mate with him, the fire-coloured male must trail the forest floor in search of a dead or dying blister beetle to lick.

    And it’s not just humans and beetles that use cantharidin. Birds do it too. Nuthatches make nests in tree holes and commonly compete with squirrels for space. The birds have been seen grabbing blister beetles in their beaks and rubbing them around the entrance to their nests, presumably forming a barrier of squirrel repellent – not exactly what the beetles intended but ingenious nonetheless.

    Today, cantharidin has been widely banned for human consumption but can still be found online and occasionally reports emerge of accidental Spanish fly poisonings.

    Via chemistry world. 10/13
  2. Basoodler
    I always heard about Spanish fly as a kid and its legendary ability to cause uncontrollable sex drive. So much so it was banned to protect against mass orgies

    Thirty some years later I find out it is a blister agent that causes your dick to swell because of inflammation .. and can kill you

    When legends die... sob
  3. Jels
    hahahahha Good post,

    Who knew where the word sadism came from, Marquis de Sade anyone? lol Good the prostitutes didnt eat them all!
  4. maltdog
    I tried Spanish fly in my late teens.
    Its possible that I only got a placebo group effect, but at the time the numerous times I used it (1-3 drops in a drink around 15 min prior to desired use) I certainly believed I was much, much harder and larger slightly.

    I stopped using after perhaps 10 uses over a year??

    After reading now when more info is around, it doe sound unwise.... However it certainly seemed more effective than reports say.
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