Opium is a drug that is derived from the poppy plant. Its pain-relieving qualities have been known since ancient times. Opium was used by prehistoric inhabitants of Switzerland, by Egyptians by about 1590 B.C. , and by ancient Greek physicians around 400 B.C. . Opium was introduced to India and China around 600 B.C. by Arabian traders.

A Popular Drug

From the 1600s through the 1800s opium was one of the principal drugs in Western medicine. It was particularly promoted by the English physician Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689) to relieve pain, induce sleep, and treat strangulated bowel obstruction. Sydenham developed laudanum, a preparation of opium dissolved in sherry and flavored with saffron.

Opium was an ingredient of many of the popular patent medicines. While some of these products provided good medical treatment, many more were nothing more than opium-or alcohol-based solutions that numbed the body. Opium was also widely prescribed to consumptives (people suffering from tuberculosis) to relieve coughing and promote a sense of well-being. Opium use became widespread among artists and writers involved in the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century. In the days before ether was used as an anesthesia, opium was used to deaden the pain during surgery. Massive doses were usually the norm.

Opium Derivatives

Morphine, the main active ingredient in opium, was discovered in 1805 by German chemist Friedrich Serturner (1783-1841). Codeine, another pain-killer derived from opium, was discovered a few years later by French chemist Pierre-Jean Robiquet (1780-1840). After the hypodermic syringe was invented in 1853, Alexander Wood (1817-1884) of Edinburgh, Scotland, developed a method of injecting morphine to relieve neuralgia (a severe sharp pain along the course of a nerve).

Morphine injection for relief of pain was enthusiastically embraced by the medical community. Doctors even taught their patients how to inject themselves. Morphine injection greatly increased the amounts of the drug that users were taking as compared with laudanum.

Gradually, the addictive properties of opium and morphine were recognized. Regular use resulted in dependency, and stopping use caused uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms. The recognition of these addictive effects and the discovery of ether as an anesthetic greatly reduced the use of opium. Despite the addictive qualities of morphine, it continues to be used. When prescribed properly and carefully it remains a very important and effective pain reliever. Ironically, the search for a morphine substitute that would kill pain but be nonaddictive resulted in the discovery of heroin.

[See also Anesthesia ]

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic:

Opium forum