Heroin Century

Heroin Century

Heroin Century

Heroin Century


This fascinating account of the development and use of heroin provides a wealth of factual information alongside some informed insights into its future. Topics covered include: patterns of use, its relationship with crime, and methods of production.


Bunsen's burner was not the only legacy of the great chemist. He could also be called the grandfather of heroin. It was his pupil Augustus Matthiessen who established the programme that led to its discovery. Both men had participated fully in the flowering of synthetic chemistry that took place in Germany, particularly in the second half of the nineteenth century. Throughout the century German scientists were unchallenged leaders in this field of science, starting with Serturner's original isolation of morphine from opium. Matthiessen brought this knowledge to England when he came to work as a lecturer at St Mary's Hospital, London. His chief English assistant was C.R. Alder Wright. Together they undertook a comprehensive exploration of codeine and morphine, synthesising hundreds of new compounds based on these molecules. Wright continued when Matthiessen retired. Their excitement still shines through the dry prose of the learned articles, as day by day they made substances that had never been previously created.

In early 1874, Wright was considering the effect of acetylation on codeine and morphine. He added large amounts of acetic anhydride to morphine and applied heat. His description of what happened is as detached as you would expect in a scientific report.

When morphine is brought into contact with excess acetic anhydride, tetra-acetylmorphine is produced, whether by heating a few hours at 100 degrees centigrade, or by leaving several days at room temperature. On adding sodium bicarbonate to the product dissolved in water, a precipitate is obtained, flocculent at first, but soon becoming crystalline.

Looking over Wright's shoulder, the modern reader experiences a twinge of apprehension, as this portentous chemical clumps together and crystallises for the first time in history. . .

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