Walkabout: The Drug Business, Old School, Part 1

Like many people this year, I’ve been laid low by the severe cold and flu season that we are in the middle of. I have a cold that turned into the flu, and at long last, I hope it is finally leaving me. It’s a miserable time, especially around the holidays. When thinking of topics for new Walkabouts, it dawned on me to write about medicine, particularly over the counter medicine, the stuff most of us take to get rid of colds, coughs and fevers. We all know about the patent medicines of the Victorian age, those concoctions of both harmful and harmless substances that promised to cure everything from baldness to cancer. Brooklyn’s pharmacies had plenty of them, and the ads in the Brooklyn Eagle reflect that. Many of the cure-alls were harmless quackery, but some were poisonous or powerful substances that could kill when not mixed right, or taken in small enough doses. Pharmacology was a growing field, but not everyone who mixed, or gave out medicines was a pharmacist. And even if they were, that didn’t mean they were used to dealing with dangerous substances.

Take cocaine and opium and its derivitives, for instance. The coca leaf had been chewed for its medicinal properties by the indigenous people of South America for centuries. Ancient Peruvian mummies have been found with their cheeks stuffed with coca leaves. When the Spanish invaded in the 16th century, they first thought the leaves were the work of the Devil, but it didn’t take long for them to see coca’s value as a stimulant and pain killer, and soon this Devil’s plant was being taxed, and Spain was in the coca business. Unfortunately for them, shipping boatloads of raw coca leaves was not practical, or even possible, on the long journey back to Europe.

Scientific technology was not yet up to refining the alkaloid that makes coca cocaine, anyway, and it wasn’t until the mid- 1800s that a German scientist synthesized the substance from a trunk load of coca leaves. It soon gained use as a topical anesthetic, used in eye, spine, and other delicate injuries. We’ve all heard the apocryphal tale that the original formula for Coca Cola had cocaine in it. It did. John Styth Pemberton’s 1886 formula for Coca Cola had “a pinch of coca leaves.” They didn’t change the formula until 1906, when the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed. To this day, no one knows how much was used, or what effect it had.

Cocaine was also a popular ingredient in children’s cough medicine, and Sigmund Freud did a study where he praised cocaine’s ability to produce euphoria, energy, and hard work, with no lasting side effects. Giant drug manufacturer Parke-Davis sold cocaine cigarettes, powder, and liquid cocaine that could be injected with a needle enclosed in the packaging. By 1885, they were marketing their cocaine products as drugs that would “supply the place of food, make the coward brave, the silent eloquent and render the sufferer insensitive to pain.” Even the incredibly popular fictional hero Sherlock Holmes used cocaine. But his use signaled an end to coke’s short ride of fame. The stuff was addictive and more and more was seen as a vice, not a virtue.

By the beginning of the 20th century, there were moves to make cocaine a controlled substance, available only from doctors. More and more, the drug was seen as a vice of the lower classes, especially black people. Black stevedores and other manual laborers were encouraged to take cocaine to give them superhuman endurance and strength, enabling them to work long hours. One study in 1897 showed that the substance made them “impervious to heat and cold.” Factory workers were also encouraged to take cocaine, in order to work longer hours at peak proficiency. Cocaine was cheaper than alcohol, and soon became the drug of choice for many, especially the poor, who had only to go to the pharmacy to get it.

The fears that they had inadvertently created a “superhuman” army of coked-up blacks soon became monstrous, as fears of the white populace gave way to race riots, and the use of larger ammunition in guns, and an even more persuasive reason for “shoot first, and ask questions later” kind of policies, especially in the South. News reports, even in papers like the New York Times, spoke of cocaine’s ability to make Negroes hyper-aggressive, super-sexed, and quarrelsome. A judge in Mississippi said that “supplying a negro with cocaine was more dangerous than injecting a dog with rabies.” Racism had won. Cocaine had moved from the lab to the streets, and was no longer “Mother’s friend” in children’s cough medicine.

Opiates had a similar history. Opium’s been around as long, or longer, than the coca leaf, and can be found in the hieroglyphics of ancient Egypt, and in the first writings of the early civilizations of the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. It was always known to be a powerful pain killer and anesthetic. This milky juice scraped from the pod of the opium poppy was revered in ancient cultures, and was seen as a gift from the gods, able to treat everything from colicky babies to migraine headaches to sciatica. It was used as an anesthetic, and also as a way to painlessly put someone to death.

Smoking opium was also a common practice in Middle Eastern societies for centuries, and the drug had been introduced by traders to China somewhere between 400 and 1200 CE, so that by the time Western man had wandered over to the Middle East, this drug already had a long history. In the 1500s, a German scientist known as Paracelsus had synthesized the first “tincture of opium”, a substance he called “laudanum.” Laudanum soon became the doctor’s choice as an ingredient in all kinds of medicine used to treat headaches, chronic pain, diarrhea, insomnia, sleep and nervous disorders.

Of course, the other side of the picture is addiction. Opium is highly addictive, and the Middle Eastern and Chinese cultures which amazed the West in their medicinal use of the drug, also knew the addictive side. Opium was first eaten in order to get high. Smoking opium in pipes came a bit later, and the first shipments of opium to the West came from the Ottoman Empire, not from the Chinese, as is often thought. By the 19th century, the Victorians were enamored and scandalized by the opium culture. The idea of smoke filled “dens”, sexually aroused smokers, white slavery, harems, and exotic cultures was enough to send a proper lady swooning to her couch, helped with a nice dose of laudanum.

The British government started two Opium Wars with the Chinese, in the first half of the 19th century, seeking to control the production and sale of opium. The Chinese lost, and British Hong Kong was one of the concessions of the war. By the end of the 19th century, 85% of the opium legally shipped from abroad came from China. With this also came the marginalization of Chinese workers brought to America to work the railroads, and other industries, and tales of the “Yellow menace”, foul opium dens, debauched Westerners, and “Oriental drug kingpins” came with it.

Medicinally speaking, by the end of the 19th century, opiates like opium, laudanum, heroin and morphine were all being touted as wonder drugs. Laudanum, in various dilutions, was the drug of choice given to women for “nervous disorders” and “female problems” like menstrual cramps. But this came with frightening statistics. According to a study done at the time, “Between 150,000 and 200,000 opiate addicts lived in the United States in the late 19th century and between two-thirds and three-quarters of these addicts were women.”

Morphine, synthesized from opium, was first commercially made, in 1827. Germany seemed to be a hotbed of medicinal breakthroughs, and the substance was manufactured and marketed by druggist Heinrich Emanuel Merck, who was able to turn his family business into pharma-giant Merck KGAa; all because of morphine. Codeine followed in 1832, synthesized by Pierre Jean Robiquet, an important French chemist, and that was soon followed by heroin, first synthesized in 1874, forgotten about, and rediscovered by Felix Hoffmann, working at Beyer Pharmaceuticals in Germany.

Between 1898 and 1910, Beyer marketed heroin as a non-addictive morphine substitute, and children’s cough medicine. By 1902, heroin sales accounted for 5% of the company’s profit. But it soon became known as a highly addictive substance, and was removed from the general market. They also came up with oxycodone, another by-product of opium, in 1916. This one was also supposed to be less addictive, as well. But people will abuse anything for that feeling of well-being, and soaring above the problems of their lives.

OK, back to Brooklyn. In 1870, when laudanum was king, and opium was still being used as medicine, a woman named Mrs. John T. Bernard, the wife of a Clinton Hill manufacturer, called for her doctor at her residence at Cambridge Place and Gates Avenue. She was having some kind of gastric attack, or as the paper put it, “an attack of pain in the bowels.” Her doctor accessed the situation as non-life threatening, and wrote her a prescription of “tincture of opium” which was to be taken a teaspoon an hour, in ice water, until the pain subsided. Mrs. Bernard had the prescription filled at a local pharmacy, and she took the medicine. The next day, she was dead.

What went wrong? You’ll have to wait until our next column to find out.

(Above 1885 advertisement:Wikipedia)