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The Early Use of Ergotamine in Migraine:
Edward Woakes’ report of 1868; its theoretical
and practical background and its international reception
PJ Koehler and H Isler
Posted: January 2003  
Cephalalgia 2002; 22:686-691


Although ergot had been used in obstetrics for several centuries, it was proposed for the treatment of migraine only in the 19th century. The British ENT-surgeon Edward Woakes (1837-1912) recommended ergot as a vasoconstricting agent for migraine and other neurogenic conditions associated with vasodilatation in 1868. He subscribed to the theory of vasodilatation by sympathetic deficit, presented in the early 1850s by Brown-Sequard and Claude Bernard. Du Bois-Reymond proposed vasoconstriction by sympathetic overactivity as the cause of migraine in 1860; Brown-Sequard opposed this in favor of vasodilatation. Vasodilatation due to sympathetic deficit in migraine was again supported by Mollendorf, with clinical evidence, in 1867. Woakes’ paper of 1868 introduced ergot as a vasoconstrictor for the same condition. Reception abroad was prompt. A German version appeared in 1869, and Eulenburg cited Woakes in his textbook of 1871. Eulenburg presented the use of ergot for migraine as a routine measure in the second edition of his textbook in 1878, and in a paper published in 1883. The method was internationally accepted, but it became really popular only after the isolation of pure ergotamine in 1918, resulting in the first reliable compounds with stable properties and predictable effects. Contrary to Woakes’ theory, in the early 20th century ergot was used for migraine because of its well-documented adrenolytic properties, as migraine was by then again believed to be a sympathotonic and vasospastic condition.




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