Opium is an extract of Papaver Somniferum, a milky, resin-like extract from a type of poppy flower historically cultivated throughout Asia. In ancient Rome, the physician Galen was recommending this exudate of the opium poppy for headaches, deafness, epilepsy, vertigo, venomous bites, asthmas, coughs, and overall melancholy. When it came to pain and coughs, opium was one drug that definitely pulled its weight. This is, no doubt, on the account of the active ingredient in opium–morphine. Named after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams, it is no wonder that this narcotic has continued to be a mainstay in modern medicine. 

Historical Use

A Beginner's Guide to Opium

The 16th century saw the creation of many notable inventions that are still with us. Zacharias Janssen invented the compound microscope. Galileo Galilei gave us the first thermometer. Martin Behaim came up with Nurnberg Terrestrial, the world’s earliest globe, and Paracelsus gifted the masses with tincture of opium, more popularly known as Laudanum. This Swiss-German alchemist had a unique recipe for Laudanum that, according to the London Pharmacopoeia (1618), was made up of a mixture of opium, castor, saffron, nutmeg, musk, and ambergris. In the 1670s Thomas Sydenham, a noted English physician, plucked the concoction from the relative obscurity into which it had fallen and simplified the formula. He created a proprietary blend of simple opium and alcohol creating a true tincture. His creation was exceptionally effective against pain and “lauded” for its euphoric effect on people.

Patents and the FDA

It did not take long for a plethora of patented medicines to incorporate laudanum into their formulas. The Victorian era was practically steeped in laudanum as it was given to everyone from menstruating women to teething infants. In fact, laudanum was so prevalent that one of the mainstays of fragrance in Victorian-era based perfumes is actually base notes of opium. Considered to be a working-class drug, tincture of opium was cheaper than a bottle of liquor or wine and because it was considered to be a medicine was not privy to the same taxes.

 In the early 1800s German pharmacist, Friedrich Serturner was the first to isolate the morphine compound from opium and by 1820 it could be found in everything: mercury, brandy, hashish, wine, cayenne pepper, belladonna, ether, and chloroform. As we move forward to the 20th century all sorts of narcotics were suddenly seeing increased regulations where there had once been hardly any. This especially included morphine and laudanum as the addictive properties of these opiate derivatives were finally starting to be understood.

Suddenly putting it in the baby’s cough medicine didn’t seem like such a great idea.

The Fall From Grace

Withdrawals from the substance were becoming more of a spectacle. Oliver Wendell Holmes, a medical professor, and writer opined that if the concoction could be sunk to the bottom of the sea “it would be all the better for mankind and all the worse for the fishes.” Tincture of opium is still used and sold today by several pharmaceutical companies.

It is what is known as an “unapproved drug” prevailing only because it was sold prior to 1938s Food, Drug & Cosmetic Act and was grandfathered in. Even to this day morphine is known the world over for its pain-relieving capabilities, and its ability to produce a prolonged, euphoric state. For a practicing surgeon, there is no doubt morphine is a dream substance, and for an addict a complete nightmare. 

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