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The addictive history of medicine: Opium, the poor child’s nurse

The Ebers papyrus tells us the Ancient Egyptians had an interesting way to deal with noisy crying babies: just give them a draft of opium. This practice was still very much use in the Victorian era, when it gained notoriety for the dangers the use of children’s opiates posed to general health.

Opium - The Poor Child's Nurse

"The Poor Child's Nurse" from an 1849 issue of British humour magazine Punch. Source: HarpWeek.

We know in this era opium was readily used as a cure for a bad cough, or aches and pains, but it is less well known that opium was also given to children, and even babies. Restless or teething babies and small infants would be given concoctions such as Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, which contained morphine (an opium derivative). There were at least ten brands of mixtures aimed at children and infants including Atkinson’s Royal Infants’ Preservative, and Street’s Infants Quietness. The most famous preparation of children’s opiates was Godfrey’s Cordial, which was a mixture of opium, treacle, water and spices.

Advertisment for Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup

A glamourised and seemingly tranquil card advertisement for Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup. Source: University of Buffalo.

Medical Officers during this period were convinced that opium was a major cause of infantile death, with the use of opium becoming widespread amongst working class families. Opium was often described as the ‘Poor Child’s Nurse’, due to its ability to stop hungry babies from crying. Attitudes towards the administering of opium to children were often casual, with preparations such as laudanum and paregoric stating recommended doses for children and infants on the labels of bottles.

Bottle of Stickney and Poor's Paregoric with dosages for children

The label on the back of this bottle of Stickney and Poor's Paregoric states dosages for infants as young as five days old. Source: University of Buffalo.

One Manchester druggist even admitted to selling between five and six gallons of “quietness” every week. That’s around 24 pints! Opium caused infant mortality through starvation rather than overdose; as one doctor stated that infants ‘kept in a state of continued narcotism will be thereby disinclined for food, and be but imperfectly nourished”. The scale of infant mortality at the time was not fully known, as coroners often recorded the cause as ‘starvation’. Lozenges or pastilles containing opium were often displayed within pharmacy shop cabinets in rows, very much like a candy shop.

Jar for 'Licorice & Chlorodyne' Pastilles

Rows of jars for pastilles with various ingredients, including one for 'Liquorice & Chlorodyne', on display in the Gibson & Son Pharmacy at the Science Museum, Lower Wellcome Gallery. Source: Science Museum.

 This article was written by Kristin Hussey and Luke Pomeroy, Collections Information Officers.

The addictive history of medicine: Opium, the ancient drug of choice

Here’s our next installment in the addictive history of medicine…

Medicinal preparations of opium are usually associated with the Victorians, but their origins are much more ancient. References to poppy juice are mentioned on 7th century BC medical tablets from the Assyrian civilizations, and the Sumerians called the poppy the ‘plant of joy’. The Greeks used poppy preparations widely in their medicine, although most famously in the mixture called Theriac or Mithrate which was invented in the 1st century AD. The concoction which had up to 64 ingredients including opium, cinnamon, myrrh, honey and ‘viper’s flesh’ was used to treat poisonous snake bites among other complaints. Theriac was widely traded as far as China, and arrived in England in the 14th century where it was called ‘Venice Treacle’ for its sticky and sweet consistency. It became known almost immediately as a cure for the Black Death, and parents rubbed the stuff on their children to keep them safe. Much like smelling sweet spices kept in ‘pomanders’, this technique probably did not work very well against the highly infectious plague.

French polychrome faience storage jar for theriac

French pharmacy storage jar for storing theriac. This jar dates from between 1725-1775, and was made by the Hustin Factory in Bordeaux. Credit: Science Museum.

Opium was widely used in Englandby the 14th century for its ability to induce sleep. William Shakespeare famously wrote in his play Othello:

‘Not poppy, nor mandragore,

Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,

Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep,

Which thou ow’dst yesterday.’

Laudanum, a mixture of opium, water and alcohol, eventually became the most widely used preparation of opium, and the most abundant in the Science Museum’s collections. The term was first coined in the 16th century by the Italian botanist Paracelsus, who called his own pill-like laudanum preparation ‘the stone of immortality’. The drug was made famous by the English physician John Sydenham in 1660. Sydenham’s liquid laudanum, opium combined with sherry, instantly became popular as a cure-all for pain and other complaints. As Sydenham himself said of the drug, ‘Medicine would be a cripple without it…’


Glass dispensing bottle for Sydenham's Laudanum

19th Century glass dispensing bottle for Sydenham's Laudanum, possibly German. Credit: Science Museum.


In early medicine, opium was an indispensable tool in the doctor’s and surgeon’s arsenal, used to treat insomnia, pains, diarrhoea and even cholera. In the Science Museum’s collections of medicine chests, you can find a small bottle of some opium mixture, usually laudanum, in almost every one. It is worth remembering that unlike today, most people in earlier times would probably never have seen a doctor in their life. They often had to rely on drugs like opium for pain relief instead of proper medical care. As you can imagine, pain-relief and addiction went hand-in-hand.

 This article was written by Kristin Hussey and Luke Pomeroy, Collections Information Officers.