History.—Among the later Greek and the Arabian physicians, a medicine called hermodactyl (ερμοδακτυλος, from ερμης, Mercury or Hermes; and δακτυλος, a finger) was in great repute as a remedy for arthritic diseases. It was first mentioned by Alexander of Tralles, [Lib. xl.] who flourished A. D. 560. Paulus Aegineta, [Opera, lib. iii. cap. 78; also, Adams'a Transtlation for the Sydenham Society, vol. i. p. 660; and vol. iii. pp. 114 and 495.] who lived A.D. 650, Avicenna, [Lib. ii. cap. 352.] Serapion, [De simplicibus, cap. 194.] and Mesue, [Opera, p. 37, ed. Bonon. 1484.] also speak of it. It is deserving of especial notice, that, under the name of Surugen or Hermodactyl, Serapion comprehends the κολχικον and εφημερον of Diosoorides, and the ερμοδακτυλος of Paulus. By some of the old writers, hermodactyl was called anima articulorum, or the soul of the joints.
Natural History.—The cormi brought from Oriental countries in modern times under the name of hermodactyls, answer to the descriptions given of the ancient substance bearing this name. I am, therefore, induced to believe them to be identical with the latter. Their resemblance to the cormi of Colchicum autumnale leads me to reject the notion of Matthiolus, at one time entertained by Linnaeus, [Murray, App. Med. vol. v. p. 215.] and adopted by Martius [Pharmakognosie, 42.] and Fraas, [Syn. Plant. Fl. Classicae, p. 293, 1845.] that they are produced by Iris tuberosa. That they are the underground stems of some species of Colchicum can scarcely, I think, be doubted by any one who carefully examines them. Notwithstanding the statements of Mr. Want [Med. and Phys. Journal, vol. xxxii.] and of Sir H. Halford, [London Medical Gazette, vol. viii. p. 318.] I cannot admit the assumption that hermodactyls are the cormi of Colchicum autumnale, though this is the only species of Colchicum admitted into the new Greek Pharmacopoeia. Though resembling the latter in several circumstances, they possess certain distinctive peculiarities. Some of the most eminent pharmacologists of Europe (e.g. Guibourt, Goebel, Geiger, Geoffroy, &c.) also regard them as distinct. The Colchicum illyricum, mentioned in many works as yielding hermodactyl, is unknown to modern botanists. The cormus of Colchicum byzantinum is too large to be confounded with hermodactyl. Colchicum variegatum has been supposed by several botanists and pharmacologists to bo the source of hermodactyl, but further evidence is required to establish the opinion. This plant is a native of Sicily, Crete, Greece, and Portugal. Dr. Sibthorp [Prod. Fl. Graecae, ii. 250.] found it on Helicon, Parnassus, and other mountains of Greece. It is not improbable, I think, that Colchicum bulbocodiodes may yield hermodactyl, which Dale [Pharmacologia, p. 245. ed. 3tia.] tells us is brought from Syria. Dr. Lindley informs me that this species was found by Colonel Chesney near the Euphrates, where it was very common, flowering in March. The cormi were not brought over. Iris tuberosa was not found there. Forskål [Fl. Aegypt. Arab. p. 77.] found Colchicum montanum (which Sprengel, in his Syst. Veg., regards as identical with C. bulbocodiodes) at Kurma, in Arabia.
Description.—Mesue says that hermodactyl is either long, like the finger, or round. Of the round, he adds, there are three kinds—the white, the red, and the black; the white being the best. C. Bauhin [Pinax, p. 67, 1671.] considered that the black and red hermodactyl of Mesue and Serapion are C. autumnale, or, as he terms it, "Colchicum commune;" but the white hermodactyl he regarded as a distinct kind, which he calls "Colchicum radice siccata alba." Through the kindness of my friend Professor Royle, I have had the examination of two kinds of hermodactyl, procured by him in the bazaars of Northern India, brought, he thinks, from Surat or Bombay, and probably imported there from the Red Sea.
1. Tasteless Hermodactyl; Sorinjan sheeran (i.e. sweet sorinjan), Royle; Hermodactylus, Auct. nostrae aetatis.—In their general form these cormi resemble those of Colchicum autumnale. They are flattened, cordate, hollowed out or grooved on one side, convex on the other. At their lower part (forming the base of the heart) is a mark or disk for the insertion of the root fibres. Their size varies: the specimens I have examined were from 3/4 to 1 1/2 inches in length or height, 1 to 1 1/2 inches in breadth, and about 1/2 an inch in depth. They have been deprived of their coats, are externally dirty yellow or brownish, internally white, easily broken, farinaceous, opaque, odourless, tasteless, or nearly so, and worm-eaten. They agree precisely with hermodactyls furnished me by Professor Guibourt. They are readily distinguished from the cormi of Colchicum autumnale by the following characters, which are correctly stated by Geoffroy: [Trait. de Mat. Méd. t. ii. p. 79.] They are not rugose, are white internally, are moderately hard, easily broken, and form a whitish powder; whereas the dried cormi of Colchicum autumnale are rugose, softer, and have a reddish or grayish tint both internally and externally.
2. Bitter Hermodactyl; Sorinjan tulkh (i. e. bitter sorinjan), Royle. ? Bulbs [cormi] of another Colchicum. [Goebel, Pharm. Waarenk. p. 271.] ?? Hermodactylus rubens et niger (Avicenna and Mesue).—The cormi of this variety are distinguished from the preceding by their bitter taste, their smaller size, and by having externally a striped or reticulated appearance. Their colour for the most part is darker; in some specimens it is blackish. One cormus is ovate-cordate; 1 inch in height or length, 3/4 of an inch broad, and about 1/4 of an inch thick, grooved or hollowed on one side, convex on the other; of a brownish-yellow colour, semi-transparent, has a horny appearance, and is marked by longitudinal stripes, indicating a laminated structure. A second is opaque, amylaceous, reticulated externally, white internally, less flattened, and of a remarkable shape, the concave or hollow side of the cormus being continued half an inch below the mark for the attachment of the root fibres. The other cormi are of the size and shape of a large orange pip, but flattened or grooved on one side; some of them are worm-eaten, and one is blackish-brown externally.
Composition.—Lecanu [Journ. de Pharm, xi. 350.] analyzed hermodactyls (the tasteless variety), and obtained the following results: Starch (forming the principal constituent of the hermodactyl), fatty matter, yellow colouring matter, gum, supermalates of lime and potash, and chloride of potassium.
Is the absence of veratria or colchicina to be ascribed to the cormi having undergone decomposition by keeping? No inulin was detected.
Chemical Characteristics.—Both the tasteless and bitter hermodactyls are blackened by tincture of iodine, showing the presence of starch. A cold decoction of the bitter variety produced an intense blue precipitate (iodide of starch) with a solution of iodine. Tincture of galls, and solutions of protonitrate of mercury, and of diacetate of lead, caused a cloudiness in the cold decoction.
Effects and Uses.—No modern experiments have been made to determine the activity of hermodactyl. The tasteless variety is probably inert, or nearly so; but the bitter variety, I suspect, possesses some activity. Is its operation analogous to that of the cormus of Colchicum autumnale?
Speaking of the treatment of gout and arthritis, Paulus says: "Some, in the paroxysms of all arthritic diseases, have recourse to purging with hermodactylus; but it is to be remarked that the hermodactylus is bad for the stomach, producing nausea and anorexia, and ought, therefore, to be used only in the case of those who are pressed by urgent business, for it removes rheumatism speedily, and after two days at most, so that they are enabled to resume their accustomed employment." [Adams's Translation, vol. i. p. 660, Sydenham Society's edition.]
The Elements of Materia Medica and Therapeutics, Vol. II, 3th American ed., was written by Jonathan Pereira in 1853.