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By Kristin Hussey on

The Addictive History Of Medicine: An Introduction

If you’ve ever been in hospital, there’s a good chance your doctor gave you morphine to help with the pain when recovering from a procedure. If you have ever had a bad cough, you might have been given a cough syrup with codeine in it. We don’t usually think of addictive substances as playing an important role in medicine, but the Science Museum’s pharmaceutical collection shows that these drugs have been widely used by doctors since ancient times. Opium in various forms has been used since the Greeks, although it rose to notoriety with the Victorians. From beautiful glassware, to the patent medicines which ushured in a new age of advertising, addicive drugs can be found throughout medical history.

An advertisement from 1935 extols the virtues of Chlorodyne, a medicine containing chloroform and morphine. (Credit: The Virtual Dime Museum)

In this blog series, we will be delving into the ‘Addictive History of Medicine’. That is, how addictive drugs played an important role in the evolution of medical practice. We will look at a range of topics from ancient drug preparations to the use of opiates for children, how to spot opium in 19th century pharmacy bottles and even consider Sherlock Holmes and his cocaine habit using the lens of our collections.

Late Victorian hypodermic syringe case for administering cocaine. (Credit: The Science Museum)

As Collections Information Officers, we spend much of our time working with the medical collections here at the Science Museum. We are currently carrying out a documentation project on the pharmaceutical collections we have in our small objects storage, and we became interested by the variety of addictive drugs from different time periods. We hope you are as fascinated as we are by these objects and their addictive history.

Rows of ceramic pharmacy jars in the Science Museum's stores. (Credit: The Science Museum)

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