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By Luke Pomeroy on

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.



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