Drugs in Victorian Britain

An Opium-den in the East End of London. Wellcome Images

An Opium-den in the East End of London. Wellcome Images

My interest in Victorian medicine started at university and peaked with my dissertation on opiates’ metamorphosis from remedy to public enemy. There is something rich and romantic about the Victorians and their drugs. The works of Thomas de Quincey, Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens all owe more than a little to potent drugs that were freely available in their time. But the 19th century pharmacopoeia was actually much more mundane: most of the populace were taking these newly-illegal drugs for the common complaints of cold, cough and toothache.

February’s Wellcome Collection symposium, Drugs in Victorian Britain, saw a range of speakers exploring aspects of the many common remedies taken throughout the 19th century, as well as the more exotic experimental drugs. There was the drug as inspiration, the drug as medicine and the drug as a menace.

The symposium opened with an evening of performance by The Magic Lantern, a fantastical show that echoed the psychedelic phantasmagoria, a Victorian pre-cursor to cinema. The creativity and imagination of the show was matched with great technological prowess. It was particularly fitting for the symposium: Thomas De Quincey, in his work Confessions of An Opium Eater, states that a philosopher who takes opium will experience a phantasmagoria of dreams.

The following day, five speakers were introduced by Mike Jay. Jay is the author and cultural historian who co-curated Wellcome Collection’s ‘High Society. He expressed relief that we are now beginning to have a ‘grown-up’ conversation about current illegal drugs, and said that the day would be a chance to look at how some of these drugs came into society. The 19th century was a crucial period of drug-taking development both in terms of potency and plurality. The Victorians took not just alcohol and opium but cannabis, coca, mescal, and with the invention of the hypodermic needle in the 1840s, morphine and heroin. The 19th century was also the origin of drug control, and the medicalisation of addiction to these substances.

The first speaker was Dinah Birch. She offered a look at what these drugs meant in the context of Victorian society. Victorians are often mocked for the prudery and restraint, but they seem to have been venturesome and even wild in their pursuit of altered mind states. What can explain this? Birch supposed that Victorian austerity was part of an inclination to sensation seeking. The high from success and the high of narcotics are partners in pleasure. She quoted Edmund Burke, who said, “under the pressure of the cares and sorrows of our mortal condition men have at all times called in some physical aid to their moral consolations.” Victorians were not unique in their interests but drug-taking was important to their culture, and the promotion of drugs by industry, particularly the still legal tobacco, tea, coffee and alcohol cemented this status in Victorian Britain.

Birch also talked about the development of a serious scientific culture towards the middle of the 19th century that led to self-experimentation with drugs. This topic was picked up by historian Dr Michael Neve. His readings of three separate accounts of drug experimentation by S. Weir Mitchell, Henry Havelock Ellis and Mark William James demonstrated an eagerness to understand more about the mind, the body, and the connection between altered states of the mind and something more spiritual. Experimentation and exploration led to enlightened thinking.

Next, Stuart Anderson, Associate Dean at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, took us on a tour of the Victorian pharmacy. Most Victorians were poor and life was hard: drugs and medicines were vital. Chemists were available for free whereas doctors were not, and most Victorians got their drugs over the counter, without a prescription. The wide range of these drugs was intriguing. The Victorian chemist stocked not only patent and proprietary medicines, ready made, but nostrums made by himself and raw ingredients for home remedies. There was laudanum for dysentery, chlorodyne for coughs and cold, camphorated tincture of opium for asthma. Opium pills were coated in varnish for the working class, silver for the rich, and gold for the very rich. Angelic children frolicked on the bottles of Ayers Cherry Pectoral, a mixture of alcohol and opium that would now be deemed a poison. Coca leaf, from which cocaine is now obtained, was advertised as a nerve and muscle tonic, to “appease hunger and thirst” and to relieve sickness.

Anderson’s presentation was the most entertaining of the day. Delight rippled through the audience when he showed a slide of a small chemist’s shop in Nottingham with the name “J Boot”. Another laugh was raised when he announced that Pope Leo the 13th had awarded the cocaine-laced Mariani Wine a Vatican gold medal.

English lecturer Julian North was next and gave an overview overview of the influence of drugs on Victorian literature. She ranged from the obvious: Princess Puffer in Charles Dickens’s Edwin Drood and Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes shooting up cocaine, to the more subtle. Although Charlotte Bronte never experimented with drugs, there are apparent influences of her brother’s opium addiction in her writing.

North highlighted an aspect of Victorian society that was touched on by Dinah Birch: division. On the outside, the Victorian is socially respectable, underneath they are bubbling away. This reverberates in their literature. It is most notable in the transformation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde. (Allegedly, Stevenson wrote the novel during a six day cocaine binge.) Bronte’s character Lucy Snow is outwardly mousey; inwardly passionate and imaginative. Jasper John from Edwin Drood is a choirmaster who visits opium dens. The unageing Dorian Grey is angelic and beautiful but locked away is his horrifying portrait. Thrill-seeking Sherlock Holmes says, “I abhor the dull routine of existence, I crave metal stimulation.”

It is no accident that drugs in Victorian culture are entwined with the emergence of detective literature. Opium and cocaine, like detection, held the power to trace back and uncover our darkest motives. Sometimes these drugs are portrayed as crimes, accomplices to murder. But they are also portrayed as a liberation, a fight against the boredom of respectability. Victorian writing anticipates our thoughts about what drugs can do to us.

Michael Neve’s exploration of personal drug narratives on mescal, peyote, nitrous oxide produce some wonderful quotes. “It is the most democratic of the plants which lead men to an artificial paradise” wrote Henry Havelock Ellis of mescal. A phrase like this is a far cry from the mundane use of laudanum for toothache. He wrote that under the influence of mescal, the world becomes sublime. And from the sublime to the ridiculous, Neve suggested that Havelock Ellis’s description of eating a biscuit during his experimentation led to the naming of satirical band Half Man Half Biscuit nearly 100 years later.

Historian Louise Foxcroft was the final speaker of the day. She asked, what is addiction? It has been recognized as a medical problem since the middle of the 19th century. But is it a sin, a crime, a vice or a disease?

The medicalisation of addiction came with the growth of the scientific profession and the medial market place. There was a growth of specialism and new terminology. First there was the inebriate, then the addict, later the morphinomaniac, who took his place between the neurotic and the melancholic. Christian evangelists regarded addiction as a sin linked to the story of Adam and Eve. George Beard, an American doctor, argued that addiction was an eminently treatable, heritable disease related to the quality of brain nerve tissue. Addicts were often treated brutally, with scalding baths, mustard plasters, and physical force, all applied with contempt. The addict himself was seen as the source of the problem and treated without looking at his environment.

Foxcroft noted that not a lot has changed on this topic. There is still question of what an addict is. And how do we treat them? Victorian morphine addicts were weaned off their “demon” with heroin. Now the substitute is methadone. Do we need to get away from the Victorian method of looking at the individual, and rather look at society?

The symposium ended with a round table discussion chaired by writer and critic Brian Dillon. Mephedrone reared its head. Michael Neve remarked that we saw a bit of the 19th century in the press treatment of “miaow miaow”, with the focus on individual stories of drug taking and little subjective analysis. We are at least moving away from the Victorian medicine cabinet to manufactured drugs, synthesized specifically for the needs and desires of our current lives.

The bottom line was that there is a very radical drive within human nature to find ways of transcending the mundane. Our current situation with illegal drugs here might seem the result of a very modern society, but our relationship with narcotic substances goes back a long way, to Victoria and beyond.

Louise Crane is a Picture Researcher at the Wellcome Library.

Lunch on drugs

A smouldering joint

Joint, by Marcos Fernandez, on Flickr

Packed Lunch returns soon with more tales of research from local scientists. To get you in the mood, we’re catching up with some of last year’s, via the Packed Lunch podcast. In December, Benjamin Thompson went along to hear from a scientist who comes round to your place when you’re getting high…

Subscribe via iTunes | Download mp3 | Podcast feed URL

This month’s Packed Lunch at the Wellcome Collection concentrated on the study of illegal drugs. The room was full to bursting, leaving many of the guests sitting on the floor. Whether they were there because the Collection’s excellent High Society exhibition had raised their intrigue in the illicit, or because they were active users of non-prescription medications, the talk raised a huge amount of questions and stimulated a high level of debate.

This month’s interviewee was Dr Celia Morgan, a research fellow in clinical psychopharmacology from UCL. Dr Morgan’s area of research focuses on both cannabis and ketamine.

With her recent cannabis studies, Morgan described an interesting approach to gathering data, very different to what I perceived most drug studies to be like. Rather than exclusively observing the effects of the narcotic in a lab based environment, she goes round to people’s houses to test them at home.

Volunteers are all students from UCL, who have been checked to ensure they have no family or personal history of psychosis, nor any serious head injuries in the past. Dr Morgan and colleagues visit the volunteers twice; on the first visit the team take a hair and urine sample, then ask the volunteer to skin up, get high, and undertake some cognitive tests. A sample of weed is also taken for analysis.

A week later the same volunteer is visited and the tests are repeated, except this time the subject is ‘straight’. Saliva samples are taken to ensure no drugs have been taken in the past few hours.

Why are the hair samples taken? It turns out that hair acts like the rings of a tree, keeping a record of all the drugs you’ve taken in the past. On average a person’s hair grows about 1 cm per month, so by taking a 3 cm length a record of all drugs ingested over the past 3 months is available. This can be more useful than asking the volunteers themselves to remember what they’ve taken, especially as the substances used can impair memory!

What about the weed samples? Why are they taken? Dr Morgan explained that these are tested to assess the levels of two active compounds: tetrahydrocannabinol, or THC, is the most well known and produces the ‘high’ associated with cannabis, but also assessed is the level of cannabidiol, or CBD, which appears to reduce anxiety at high doses and may act as an antipsychotic, counteracting the effects of THC.

Levels of CBD in cannabis are dropping, not due to consumer demand for more potent strains with higher levels of THC, but due to modern growing conditions – indoors, frequently under constant lighting in UK factories – which appear to be lowering the plants’ natural levels of CBD.

Too little CBD may lead to acute memory loss over time and an increase in levels of proneness to psychosis.

Dr Morgan’s other research is on ketamine, a substance developed as an anaesthetic in the 1960s. Ketamine is still used today, mainly due to its safety, as it doesn’t interfere with a patient’s breathing. However, the drug has several unpleasant/pleasant side effects, depending on how you look at it. Patients described vivid hallucinations after surgery, and because of this the drug became popular for recreational use.

Ketamine began being used in the UK during the rave scene in the 1990s, when it was frequently cut with ecstasy. At low doses the drug is a stimulant, whilst a mid-strength dose may cause the user to experience bodily distortions, with limbs feeling much longer or shorter than they really are. A high dose can result in the user becoming catatonic, known colloquially as a ‘k-hole’. There is no comedown associated with ketamine as there frequently is with other drugs.

So far this sounds interesting. Sadly, however, there are a number of dangerous downsides associated with the use of this drug. Ketamine is addictive, and Dr Morgan suggests that this may be due to its short action time. Heavy users may experience both mental and physical issues, including severe memory problems and the charmingly named ‘ketamine-associated ulcerative cystitis’. This irreversible condition is caused by the drug physically binding to the bladder, which can ultimately result in bladder removal.

Dr Morgan is interested in the drug as its use is becoming more popular in the UK, but little research has been undertaken on its mode of action and long term effects. She hopes the work on this drug, and that on cannabis, will help inform the public and hopefully drive future government drugs policy in an evidence based, rather than media frenzied, direction.

Benjamin Thompson is a writer at the Wellcome Trust.