serpentina) is a small
woody perennial from Indian and the East Indies.
Roots of this plant yield the alkaloid reserpine. This was the first major tranquilizer, especially
for the treatment of paranoia and schizophrenia, as well as a substance that lowers blood
pressure and controls hypertension. Interestingly, rauvolfia was long used in India for treating
mental illness and snake bites, known to medicine men and peasants as the "insanity herb,"
snakeroot, and chandra (= moon; moon disease or lunacy). The alkaloid is effective for
snake bites and scorpion stings.
Although this plant was well
known in India, westerners
paid no attention to it until an
Indian physician wrote an article on rauvolfia in 1943. Because of the drug's noted sedative
effects, it was used to treat over a million Indians in the 1940s for high blood pressure.
After a U.S. physician named Wilkins demonstrated the positive effects of reserpine (1952),
the plant made front page news. This drug rapidly replaced electric shock and lobotomy as
treatments for certain types of mental illness. Moreover, knowledge about the chemistry
of this natural plant stimulated the synthesis of other similar alkaloids that are now used
as major tranquilizers.
Many current prescriptions
include reserpine or
reserpine derivatives, the source of which is
India, where more than 90% of the natural rauvolfia is still cultivated.