The 19th Century Book That Spawned the Opioid Crisis

By Morrison, Robert; University, Queen's et al. | The Canadian Press, May 16, 2018 | Go to article overview

The 19th Century Book That Spawned the Opioid Crisis


Morrison, Robert, University, Queen's, Ontario, The Canadian Press


The 19th century book that spawned the opioid crisis

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This article was originally published on The Conversation, an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts. Disclosure information is available on the original site.

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Author: Robert Morrison, Professor of English Language and Literature, Queen's University, Ontario

In 1804, a 19-year-old Oxford University undergraduate named Thomas De Quincey swallowed a prescribed dose of opium to relieve excruciating rheumatic pain. He was never the same.

"Oh! Heavens!" he wrote of the experience in the first modern drug memoir, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, published in 1821. "What an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of the inner spirit! What an apocalypse of the world within me!"

That the drug took away his physical pain was "a trifle," De Quincey asserted, compared to "the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me."

Over the next eight years, De Quincey used opium to heighten his enjoyment of books, music, solitude and urban wandering. In effect, he invented recreational drug taking.

Yet all the while opium was tightening its grip on him, and in 1813 he succumbed to an addiction that tormented him until his death in 1859, more than half a century after he had first tampered with the drug.

"Who is the man who can take his leave of the realms of opium?" demanded the great 19th-century French poet Charles Baudelaire in his Artificial Paradises (1860). Not De Quincey.

And, as today's opioid crisis makes clear, not millions of others who have followed him into addiction, and who have had their lives ravaged by the drug. De Quincey's Confessions transformed perceptions of opium and mapped several crucial areas of drug experience that still provoke intense debate today.

I have conducted research into the life and writings of Thomas De Quincey for 30 years, and my work on him includes a biography, The English Opium-Eater, and a critical edition of his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings. My understanding of his opium addiction has benefited greatly from my consultations with Prof. Mary Olmstead of the Centre for Neuroscience Studies at Queen's University.

The oldest drug

Opium is probably the oldest drug known to humankind. It is derived from the unripe seedpod of the poppy plant, Papaver somniferum. The ancient Greek poet Homer almost certainly refers to it as "a drug to quiet all pain and strife" in his epic poem, The Odyssey, which was written in the eight or ninth century BC, and which De Quincey quotes in his Confessions.

For thousands of year, opium was the principal analgesic known to medicine. In the 16th century, the German-Swiss alchemist Paracelsus described it as "a secret remedy."

At the end of the 18th century, the great German philosopher Immanuel Kant warned of its dangers: Opium produces a "dreamy euphoria" that makes one "silent, reticent, and withdrawn," he stated in his Metaphysics of Morals (1797), and it is "therefore permitted only" for medical reasons.

In early 19th-century Britain, opium was everywhere. People of every age and class used it for self-medication like we use aspirin today. It was legal. It was cheap. It was available in a wide range of cure-alls, including Godfrey's Cordial, the Kendal Black Drop and Mother Bailey's Quieting Syrup.

It was used to treat all manner of major and minor illness, from cancer and diabetes to travelling sickness, hay fever, headache and depression. Pharmacists sold it, as did grocers, bakers, tailors, market vendors and country peddlers. There were no efforts to regulate its sale until the Pharmacy Act of 1868.

Over-prescribed

De Quincey consumed opium as "laudanum," which is prepared by dissolving opium in alcohol. Morphine, the principal active agent in opium, was isolated in 1803 and delivered with a hypodermic syringe by the 1850s. …

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