1951 Pont-Saint-Esprit mass poisoning

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).

Most 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. Fringe theorists have speculated that the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) intentionally poisoned the population in order to test a "deliriant incapacitating agent" during the Cold War.

Ergot poisoning

Shortly after the incident, in September 1951, scientists writing in the British Medical Journal declared that “the outbreak of poisoning” was produced by ergot mold.[6] 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 rye. According to reports at the time, the flour had been contaminated by a fungus similar to the hallucinogenic drug lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).

Other theories

Later investigations suggested mercury poisoning due to the use of Panogen or other fungicides used to treat grains and seeds.[7]

In 1982, a French researcher suggested Aspergillus fumigatus, a toxic fungus produced in grain silos, as a potential culprit.[8]

In 2008, historian Steven Kaplan published a book on the incident (in French), entitled Le Pain Maudit.[9] Kaplan asserts that the incident was connected neither to LSD research nor to ergot poisoning.[10] Kaplan's book argues that the poisoning might have been caused by nitrogen trichloride used to artificially (and illegally) bleach flour.[9][11]

Conspiracy theories

Researcher John Grant Fuller Jr.'s 1968 book, The Day of Saint Anthony's Fire concluded that a form of ergot that "logically has to be akin to LSD." was the likely culprit but that we may never know for certain because toxicologists and doctors could not reach an agreement. Citing the opinion of toxicologists, Fuller asserts that the symptoms exhibited by victims in Pont-Saint-Esprit were not consistent with mercury poisoning.[12][12][13]

In his 2009 book, A Terrible Mistake, journalist Hank P. Albarelli Jr alleges 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 chemical behavior program in a field test dubbed Project SPAN. According to Albarelli, the ergot contamination explanation has been challenged and "ruled out".[13][10]

Albarelli wrote that the ergot explanation was based upon the findings of biochemists dispatched to the scene from the nearby Sandoz Chemical Company (now Novartis), based in Basel, Switzerland"[14]

Albarelli alleges that even the project name is a veiled reference, because "pont" is French for "bridge."[13] Albarelli cites numerous declassified U.S. documents—some of which directly mention Pont-Saint-Esprit.[13][10] According to Albarelli, ergot poisoning was a cover story. Referencing declassified documents, he writes:

"...biochemists [were] dispatched to the scene from the nearby Sandoz Chemical Company in Basle, Switzerland. Included in the contingent from Sandoz was Dr. Albert Hofmann, the man who had first synthesized LSD on November 16, 1938. At the time...only a handful of scientists worldwide, estimated to be no more than eight-to-ten, knew of the existence of the man-made drug LSD. ...[and] virtually nobody in France in 1951, apart from a select few officials at Sandoz Chemical, was aware that the company was secretly working closely with the CIA."[14]

In 2010, historian Stephen Kaplan dismissed Albarelli's theories and assertions as "hardly possible", and anthropologist Bernd Rieken wrote that "even in the secular society of the present, substitutes for the devil and other demons may be found, in this case the CIA, which some people believe capable of every conceivable evil".[10][15]


  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.2.930.650-a. PMC 2069953Freely accessible. PMID 14869677.
  2. Stanley Finger (2001). Origins of Neuroscience: A History of Explorations Into Brain Function. Oxford University Press. pp. 221–. ISBN 978-0-19-514694-3. Retrieved 24 February 2013.
  3. Jeffrey C. Pommerville; I. Edward Alcamo (15 January 2012). Alcamo's Fundamentals of Microbiology: Body Systems Edition. Jones & Bartlett Publishers. pp. 734–. ISBN 978-1-4496-0594-0. Retrieved 24 February 2013.
  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. pp. 82–. ISBN 978-88-8453-585-6. Retrieved 24 February 2013.
  5. Frederick Burwick (1 November 2010). Poetic Madness and the Romantic Imagination. Penn State Press. pp. 180–. ISBN 978-0-271-04296-1. Retrieved 24 February 2013.
  6. Gabbai; Lisbonne; Pourquier (15 September 1951). "Ergot Poisoning at Pont St. Esprit". British Medical Journal. 2 (4732): 650–651. doi:10.1136/bmj.2.930.650-a. PMC 2069953Freely accessible. PMID 14869677.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 1 2 Kaplan, Steven (2008). Fayard, ed. Le Pain Maudit. ISBN 978-2-213-63648-1.
  10. 1 2 3 4 Thomson, Mike (23 August 2010). "Pont-Saint-Esprit poisoning: Did the CIA spread LSD?". BBC.com. BBC News. Retrieved 7 May 2015.
  11. Quand le pain empoisonne, La Vie des idées, 2008-09-03 (in French)
  12. 1 2 Fuller, John (1969). The Day of St Anthony's Fire. London: Hutchinson. ISBN 0-09-095460-2.
  13. 1 2 3 4 SCHPOLIANSKY, CHRISTOPHE (23 March 2010). "Did CIA Experiment LSD on French Town?". ABCnews.com. ABC News. Retrieved 7 May 2015.
  14. 1 2 Albarelli, Hank P. Jr. (16 March 2010). "CIA: What Really Happened in the quiet French village of Pont-Saint-Esprit". voltairenet.org. Voltaire Network. Retrieved 7 May 2015.
  15. Omar Gelo; Alfred Pritz; Bernd Rieken (24 December 2014). Psychotherapy Research: Foundations, Process, and Outcome. Springer. pp. 28–. ISBN 978-3-7091-1382-0.

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