Two caveats to everything I've said above:
1) I haven't done any serious research on the actions of poison hemlock. What I'm saying is based on random googling. Those random sources say that poison hemlock acts by blocking acethylcholine receptors. Also, I'm largely basing my comments on Harley's account, which I have no reason to disbelieve; however, I would not look for any serious medical advice on sources that are 150 years old.
Anyway, with today's boring ethical committees and such, there probably isn't a modern account as detailed as Harley's; at least I couldn't find one. While Harley's account of symptoms seems plausible, his notions of physiology are completely obsolete, as he doesn't even know the difference between central and peripheral nervous system.
2) Modern sources mention "burning sensations in the mouth followed by vomiting", which aren't mentioned by Harley. Harley's experiments were made after ingesting a preparation called "succus conii", which isn't necessarily exactly the same as taking the crushed plant "as it is".
jeidsath wrote:You know, we have an account from Plutarch of Demosthenes' death by poison too.
ταῦτ᾽ εἰπὼν, καὶ κελεύσας ὑπολαβεῖν αὐτὸν ἤδη τρέμοντα καὶ σφαλλόμενον, ἅμα τῷ προελθεῖν καὶ παραλλάξαι τὸν βωμὸν ἔπεσε καὶ στενάξας ἀφῆκε τὴν ψυχήν.
This is much less reliable than Plato's account of Socrates -- Plutarch even says that there are many conflicting stories -- but I see tremors, staggering, followed by collapse, pain, and then respiratory failure. This seems much more similar to the classic Hemlock symptoms described by Paul.
It's possible, that if the symptoms of Hemlock poisoning were well known in classical Athens (and later), that Plato's account may depart from a literal account in ways that he expects the reader to pick up on, and he therefore expects the reader to take the details as (mystically?) significant, rather than mundane.
These doesn't seem like classical Hemlock symptoms at all – tremor is a symptom I'd expect with about any sort of death except
hemlock. Tremor originates from the central nervous system, and you can't have tremor if the message from the nerves to the muscles doesn't get through. All the muscles are flaccid
and the person is unable to move even his eyelids. What is conspicuous about death by hemlock poisoning is the lack
of any sort of agitation, gasping for breath, groaning (so στενάξας doesn't fit either) etc. With almost any death you see some sort of struggling, but not with hemlock, or this is what I expect. So Plutarch's description is a very generic one, and is consistent with almost anything, but not really poison hemlock.
I was able to find Harley's book, the account begins on page 1: https://archive.org/stream/oldvegetable ... 6/mode/2up
He says (p. 4): "An hour and a quarter after taking the dose, I first felt decided weakness in my legs. The giddiness and diminution of motor power continued to increase for the next fifteen minutes. An hour and a half after taking the dose, these effects attained their maximum; and at this time I was cold, pale, and tottering."
I now think that ψυχρὰν and ψύχοιτό are easy to explain as part of the action of poison hemlock: normally, muscle activity is an important part of maintaining body temperature (shivering when you're cold is an extreme example); it's only natural that a total loss of muscle tone makes you cold (and not just feel
cold). The lack of muscle tone and basically any kind of struggling (unusual when one is dying) would explain the πήγνυτο part.
The only inconsistency that remains in Socrates' narrative is the ascending lack of sensation (Socrates not feeling when the guard was pinching him), as I've said from the start.
Hylander wrote:I found Paul's discussion of the description of Socrates' death by hemlock interesting, particularly coming from a medical professional, and, if my suspicions are not too wide of the mark, a neurologist. It's no wonder he has taken a keen interest in this passage.
I'm not an actual neurologist, though I did work about a year in a neurology department. Nowadays I'm specializing in clinical neurophysiology, which is lab nerd medicine; in many countries it's part of neurology, but in Finland it's a speciality of it own. Bart (about whom we haven't heard for a while...) is, I think, a real neurologist. I wonder what he would say about this.