Land of Milk, Honey and Drugs

Switzerland is famous for its dairy products, its mountains and its high standard of living. For some people, however, this is pretty much all they know. The bank teller at our local Nat West had no idea that the official name for Switzerland was Confederation Helvetia and the country was, therefore, listed under C, rather than S on the table of foreign currencies. A friend once confessed to a long-held assumption that Zurich was the country’s capital and, at a party, many years ago, a young man wondered why I was so dark because  …  ‘Aren’t you all blonde in Sweden?’

There are many stereotypes associated with the country of my birth and it is certainly true that the chocolate is delicious, the scenery is gorgeous and all aspects of Swiss life, from trains to hospitals, run like clockwork. And yet, beneath and beyond these somewhat common clichés, Switzerland is a nation of considerable complexity and contradiction.

The Swiss are immensely proud of their mountain roots. They are not, generally speaking, a nation of complainers. They knuckle down and make the best of often challenging circumstances. Every summer, my great-grandfather, like his ancestors before him, would lead his cows to high pasture. Between June and September he lived in an alpine hut, tending his animals and scything the meadow grass from hillsides too steep for cows to graze. The dried bales were sent back down into the valley on hay ropes to be stored for winter feed. Today farmers use lawnmowers and rely on helicopters but, other than this,  not much has changed, because, well …. you can’t move mountains and the Swiss Alps cover 65% of the country’s surface area.

Farmers have played an important role in the Swiss pharmaceutical industry, which today accounts for 45% of the country’s exports (higher than cheese, chocolate and watches combined). In 1921, Arthur Stoll, director of pharmaceutical research at Sandoz (which later combined with Ciba-Geigy to form Novartis), successfully isolated the toxic fungus known as ‘ergot’ that grew on rye seed. Bread made from this infected grain caused seizures, lesions, psychosis and dry gangrene, and spread quickly through local communities. Stoll was fascinated to learn that, since medieval times, the fungal seeds had been used in folk medicine. Ergot was administered to women in labour as a way of accelerating childbirth and was also used to induce abortions. This association gave rise to the name – ‘Mutterkorn/Mothercorn’.

In the late 1930s, Albert Hofmann, a chemist at Sandoz was tasked with growing small and highly controlled amounts of ergot in the Emmental Valley for use in the Sandoz laboratories. The most productive strains of the fungus were then returned to the Emmental rye fields. Local farmers and their families were recruited for the harvesting process. It was time-consuming and back-breaking work but they were paid 12 francs for every kilo of seed heads they delivered to Sandoz. It was hoped that the synthesized drug might provide a cure for migraines. In 1947 Stoll’s son, Werner, a trained psychiatrist, took a single dose of the drug and experienced unexpected euphoria and vivid hallucinations. He immediately recommended it for further clinical research in the field of psychiatric medicine. Lysergsaurediethylamid subsequently became known around the world as LSD.

In 1951 my father took LSD under medical supervision. My Swiss mother, however, refused to have anything to do with pharmaceutical drugs and warned me away from all medication, including paracetamol. For headaches she prescribed coffee and, for everything else, it was either a spoonful of honey or a swig of Fernet Branca. In 1958, when Lea’s doctor in London recommended she take Thalidomide for morning sickness, she declined. The GP told her that the drug was being prescribed to women all over the world with very successful results. It turned out that the powerful sedative qualities of Thalidomide helped nauseous mothers, but the drug also acted as a nerve poison on the unborn baby. This story filled me with profound gratitude as well as a subconscious fear of pills. During my teenage years, in spite of my father’s LSD trips,  I never experimented with anything stronger than marijuana.

I hated the taste of Fernet Branca and don’t recall that it ever cured me of anything. It was, my mother told me, an herbal medicine, developed long ago in Italy. The recipe, like Coca-Cola and Kentucky Fried Chicken, was a secret, but the bitter, black liquid was renowned for its healing herbs, roots and spices. First it would make me sick and then it would knock me out: Fernet Branca has an alcohol content of 39%.

It was honey, however, that held pride of place in my mother’s medicine cabinet. We would regularly drive deep into the Kent countryside and buy local honey from Mrs. Fitall in Smarden. It was not until I was in my early twenties that I asked my mother about her unusual devotion to honey, and she told me the following story:

In 1917, my grandmother, Rosa insisted on breaking quarantine to visit a family member who was near death with the Spanish flu. Twenty five thousand people died in Switzerland and more than 50 million worldwide.  Everyone advised against it, for her own safety but also for the sake of her unborn child. Rosa chose to ignore the warnings and within a few days, she too had developed all the symptoms. My great-grandmother asked the advice of the family doctor who said he had a possible remedy, although not one he had ever tried himself. He told her to go out into the countryside and buy as much local honey as she could find. She was then to spoon-feed her daughter until she became physically sick. She followed this advice, and Rosa coughed up streams of thick black liquid. My great-grandmother continued to administer the honey until her daughter’s lungs ran clear. Rosa survived and my mother was born on July 18th, 1917. At birth, Mum told me, her body was covered in a black film which wiped off as easily as coal dust. I can find no recorded symptoms of the Spanish Flu that mention black liquid accumulating in the lungs, but perhaps no-one had ever tried the local honey cure?.

Like my mother, our kitchen cupboard is never without raw or locally-sourced honey. I eat honey every day. I gift it to friends. I still have one of Mrs. Fitall’s honey jars. As Friedrich Nietzsche said: It is the honey in my veins that makes my blood thicker, and my soul quieter.