Opium and laudanum history’s wonder drugs

Joe Schwarcz
July/August 2015

Victor Frankenstein, who incidentally was a medical student and not a doctor, was very disturbed when the creature he created killed his friend Henry Clerval. Unable to sleep, he dosed himself with laudanum, perhaps the Victorian era’s most popular medicine. Laudanum was a 10 percent solution of opium powder in alcohol, widely used to treat everything from pain and insomnia to female disorders. It was even used to quiet crying babies. The name was coined from the Latin laudare, meaning “to praise” by the 16th century Swiss-German physician Paracelsus, best known for his dictum “only the dose makes the poison.” It was Paracelsus who discovered that the active ingredients in opium were more soluble in alcohol than water, however, his laudanum differed from the version used in the Victorian era. In addition to opium it also contained powdered gold and pearls. Still, this was simpler than the galenicals: complex concoctions made from dozens of plant and other ingredients according to the teachings of the Roman physician Galen that dominated medicine about 1,500 years. 

Opium, an exudate of Papaver somniferum, a poppy cultivated historically in Asia, was already well known to Galen. He was a fan, recommending its use for headaches, vertigo, deafness, epilepsy, asthma, coughs, venomous bites, dimness of sight, spitting of blood, shortness of breath, jaundice, urinary complaints, women’s troubles and melancholy. No doubt the opium made many forget their troubles thanks to its main active ingredient: morphine. And when it came to pain and coughs, opium definitely worked. Little wonder that morphine has remained a mainstay of medicine. Indeed, when famed Harvard Medical School professor and writer Oliver Wendell Holmes opined in the 1800s that if all medicinal drugs used at the time could be sunk to the bottom of the sea, “it would be all the better for mankind and all the worse for the fishes.” However, he was careful to make an exception for opium and anesthesia. Indeed it was Holmes who in 1846 suggested the term anesthesia from the Greek word for “senseless” to describe the state produced by the inhalation of ether in a letter to dentist William Morton after he had carried out the first public demonstration of the use of ether during surgery. 

In 1676, the English physician Thomas Sydenham simplified Paracelsus’ laudanum recipe to just opium in alcohol. This was very effective against pain but many looked to it for its euphoria effect. The effects of laudanum were well described in Thomas De Quincey’s classic work Confessions of an English Opium Eater. De Quincey had been introduced to laudanum in 1804 as a treatment for trigeminal neuralgia, a disease of the trigeminal nerve that runs down the face. Even mild stimulation such as brushing the teeth or exposure to the wind can trigger a jolt of excruciating pain. Little wonder that De Quincey sang the praises of laudanum, “Here was a panacea for all human woes, here was the secret of happiness.” Samuel Taylor Coleridge was also made happy with laudanum. His famous poem “Kubla Khan” about the 13th century Chinese Emperor was based on a dream he had while in a laudanum-induced stupor. 

There are a number of references to laudanum in literature aside from that in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Cassy kills one of her children with laudanum to prevent him from growing up in slavery. Bram Stoker in Dracula has the count lace Lucy’s maids’ wine with laudanum to put them to sleep. Although laudanum today is no longer available under the name “tincture of opium,” it is still sometimes used to treat diarrhea. And morphine, of course, first isolated from opium in 1803 by the German pharmacist Friedrich Serturner, is a mainstay of pain therapy. Morphine was the first alkaloid ever isolated from a plant, making Serturner the first person to isolate an active ingredient from a medicinal plant. He named it morphium after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams. Indeed, as far as pain relief goes, morphine is a dream substance. But it can also be a nightmare when it comes to addiction.

Joe Schwarcz is the director of McGill­ University­’s Office for Science and Society. Read his blog at www.mcgill.ca/oss.