opium -- 6/8/22

Today's selection -- from The Age of Intoxication by Benjamin Breen. The chemical manipulation of opium:
"The German chemist Friedrich Sertürner, born in 1783, [announced]­ in 1805 that he had isolated a chemical from the 'salt of opium' that he dubbed 'Morphium' was a key moment in the history of medicine. The isolation of 'morphium,' better known as morphine, marked the beginning of the 'alkaloid era,' a period of pharmaceutical innovation that led to the isolation of a host of psychoactive substances collectively known to chem­ists as alkaloids, including strychnine (1817), atropine (1819), caffeine (1819), and nicotine (1828). At first, Sertürner was frightened by what he discov­ered. Morphium, he warned, had 'terrible effects.' A miniscule quantity, far smaller than any comparable dose of opium, was able to kill a dog. Later, he conducted an experiment in which Sertürner himself (along with three young test subjects) overdosed on the new substance. After noticing that 'the animal powers seemed to be raised' with a half grain of morphine, the amount was doubled and then tripled, leading to 'a sense of stunning in the head' swiftly followed by acute stomach pain, vomiting, fainting, and 'a kind of dozing reverie.' For Sertürner, this was a frightening experience:

"'If we may judge from this rather disagreeable experiment,' he concluded, 'morphium, even in small doses, is a violent poison.' Sertürner's opinion later changed, however -- especially after 1827, when the Merck family pur­chased the rights to his drug and began mass-producing it. He settled in the city of Hamelin, famous for the Pied Piper myth, and operated a pharmacy, the Rathaus Apotheke, which sold his new invention. 

Friedrich Wilhelm Adam Sertürner

"As with many firsts in the history of science, however, the first isolated alkaloid was not as novel as it might at first seem. Sertürner himself did not use the term 'alkaloid'; he simply described morphine as a 'salt' of opium. In this, he was looking backward to a century and a half of previous work. The psychoactive properties of intoxicating drugs like opium were theo­rized by some seventeenth-century European thinkers in mechanical terms: blockages of tubes in the brain, fermentations of the blood, oily or acidic molecules, and the like. A 1708 review in Philosophical Transactions by the Oxford physician John Freind gives an apt summary of this mindset. All chemistry, it claimed, is a process of joining together or separating 'bodies,' the former through calcination, sublimation, and distillation, and the lat­ter by fermentation, digestion, extraction, precipitation, and crystallization.

"Freind denounced certain chemical manipulations of opium that 'are made by the fumes of Sulphur, or by acid Liquors,' because these can dangerously coagulate or thin the blood. But he encouraged experimenting with the precipitation of a chemical medicine with 'Salts' that 'attract' and 'cohere with' particles in a drug and thus form new 'Bodies.' The language was vague, but the implications clear. Even a century before Sertürner's break­through, narcotics like opium were thought to be capable of being chemi­cally transformed and given new properties and forms, just as lead could, theoretically, be turned into gold.

"Yet if the underlying concept of a purified 'salt of opium' was not new, the ability to mass-produce such a product was. The rise of morphine as a widespread consumer product in the; 1830s and 1840s marked a decisive shift. 'Opium' had never been a single drug in a strict pharmacological sense: like many medicinal plants, Papaver somniferum contains a complex mix of psychoactive constituents (morphine, thebaine, codeine, papaver­ine) that vary in proportion according to different varietals and preparation styles. The isolation of morphine was the culmination of an Enlightenment project of isolating and defining the individual functional parts of complex systems. (De Sauvages, for instance, was a close friend of Linnaeus who studied opium as part of a larger attempt to create a rational 'taxonomy' of diseases and drugs.) The steps by which orientalized opium became 'mod­ern' morphine were thus the end points of a process of disassociation that began decades earlier.

"As we saw in Chapter 2, some efforts had been made to disassociate drugs like opium from the non-European and subaltern groups associated with them. Now it was possible to disassociate a drug from nature itself, or at least to materially remove it from the world of botany and plants. A Neo­lithic flower had become a nondescript white powder: the product of a labo­ratory, not a plantation."

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Benjamin Breen


The Age of Intoxication


University of Pennsylvania Press


Copyright 2019, University of Pennsylvania Press


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