From traditional herbal medicine to potent pharmaceutical drug and addiction
Opium was widely used in the ancient world, but it was Andromachos, the personal physician of Emperor Nero, who popularized it. One day, Nero challenged Andromachos to create a true panacea, a remedy that would ease all pain and diseases. The physician came up with a potent potion consisting of about sixty different plants and substances, including opium, which he called 'Theriak'. Later, Galen refined the brew and renamed it Galene. It became so popular throughout Europe that it rose to the status of a miracle cure. But the potion was expensive, and some ingredients were difficult to obtain, which led to adulteration.
During the Middle Ages, medicine became 'heroic' - in other words, unsympathetic, and patients were expected to simply bear their pain. The use of opium as a painkiller declined. But eventually, Paracelsus revived it by creating a stripped-down version of the original Theriak recipe, which proved extremely effective and soon surpassed even the success of the original. He compounded his concoction into pill form and called it 'Laudanum Paracelsi'.
He had managed to make his painkiller even more effective by the simple addition of lemon juice. The acid subtly changes opium's chemistry and enhances its anodyne action. For a long time, Laudanum was a celebrated panacea, believed to be effective for every ailment except leprosy.
The somewhat hyperbolic reputation meant that it was often in short supply. But it also pricked scientific curiosity and inspired numerous experiments. It even gave rise to the groundbreaking invention of the hypodermic needle. In 1656, Sir Christopher Wren first employed a syringe to prove the theory of blood circulation. He injected a dog's hind leg with a solution of opium, and sure enough, the drug rapidly took effect over the dog's entire body.
In 1680, the English Doctor Thomas Sydenham revised Paracelsus' potion once again. His aim was to purify the raw drug and rid it of impurities that seemed to cause 'sickness' when taken in large quantities. He added sherry wine, saffron, cinnamon and cloves to Paracelsus' Laudanum and renamed it 'Sydenham's Laudanum'. It was no more effective than the original, but it kicked off a new wave of enthusiasm for opium-based products. Soon every chemist seemed to market their own blend. Venice Treacle, Mithridate, London Laudanum and Dr Bate's Pacific Pills all became popular household names. But the available raw opium could barely keep up with the demand.
Laudanum was as popular as aspirin is today. Physicians routinely prescribed twice-weekly preventative dosing. Alas, sometimes too much of a good thing proves, well..., too much.
Overprescription and Addiction
It was at this time that overprescription led to the first cases of serious opium addiction. The problem was compounded by the fact that Laudanum was even overprescribed for children. But the problem with an addictive substance such as opium is that frequent dosing increases the body's resistance, and larger amounts are required to get the same results.
In 1700, Dr John Jones published a book called 'The Mysteries of Opium Revealed'. In the course of about 400 pages, he extolled the properties of opium. Describing its uses and effects, he also reported on its pleasant side effects and symptoms of addiction. Although his work was clearly biased and likely to have been influenced by his own intimate relationship with the subject, it did contain a grain of genius. Jones was the first to intuit that opium actually imitated substances that are already present in the body. But it took another 275 years before scientists discovered these substances, which subsequently became known as endorphins.
Debate and experimentation continued. In 1799, Friedrich Sertürner, a young German pharmacist's apprentice, observed that the effects of opium seemed to vary considerably from batch to batch. He became convinced that this must be due to the varying presence of an active constituent in the raw opium. After only four years of experimentation, he managed to isolate such a substance. In allusion to the Greek god of sleep, he called 'morphine'. But he wrongly believed that this purified compound was free of the unpleasant characteristics of opium. He had assumed that morphine was safer because only a tiny amount of it was necessary to induce far stronger effects than those of raw opium. But neither he nor anyone else at the time realized that it was also far more addictive. Soon, several pharmaceutical companies started to churn out morphine by the boatload. At the same time, Wren's earlier invention for injecting opium was perfected and morphed into what we now know as the hypodermic syringe. The improvement was celebrated as a great success, since the administration of morphine via a syringe tripled its efficacy.
The story of opium epitomizes the risk of relying on science to solve all our problems. Sometimes the solution to one problem engenders new ones that we only fully grasp much later.
(The history of poppy also has a very interesting, dark and thought-provoking political aspect, which, however, is beyond the scope of this article. Those interested in this plant and its impact on world history should read up on the opium wars - the consequences of which still linger.