EDMONTON - A University of Alberta pharmacology professor was credited for “doing the impossible” with the first large-scale production of the medicinal plant belladonna in Canada.
Alberta’s soil and climate, combined with the ingenuity and hard work of Dr. A.W. Matthews, resulted in a drug of excellent quality, and with a better appearance than the prewar drug previously imported from Central Europe, said officials of the company in Eastern Canada where the crop was sent.
Matthews took matters into his own hands a year earlier when drug companies were forced to start rationing belladonna.
The plant was used to increase secretions of the body, as well as by eye specialists to dilate the pupil.
Though widely regarded as unsafe, belladonna is used today as a sedative, to stop bronchial spasms in asthma and whooping cough, and as a cold and hay fever remedy. It is also used for Parkinson’s disease, colic, motion sickness and as a painkiller.
Matthews had been cultivating drug plants on a small scale when he heard of the shortage and planted some seeds in a greenhouse. He then leased a vacant lot and planted 5,000 young plants early in June.
Four months of back-breaking work followed as Matthews and his assistant, Mervyn J. Huston, mothered the slow-growing plants through a wet summer, which further delayed their growth.
At the end of the process, Matthews found the harvest yielded 750 pounds per acre, a yield comparable to that obtained under ideal conditions in a large research project being carried out in the eastern United States. But the professor cautioned Alberta farmers about starting to grow belladonna.
“The basis of growing the crop depends entirely upon hand labour and very special care,” Matthews said. “The plant is definitely not adaptable to mass production methods, and with the shortage of labour growing worse every day (because of the war), the planters’ difficulties are bound to increase. “
Matthews and his assistant hoped some of the drug made from the plants they had grown would fill the empty spaces on shelves of western pharmacies.
“Then we will feel that our work has been of some consequence,” he said.