A Brief Introduction to Laudanum

For cholera: '30 drops of laudanum'
Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London

“He checked me with my laudanum… Yet do I indeed obnubilate my mind? I rarely take a thousand drops, a trifle compared with your true opium-eater’s dose or with my own in Diana’s day: I can refrain whenever I choose: and I take it only when my disgust is so great that it threatens to impede my work.” – Excerpt from Stephen Maturin’s Diary, The Mauritius Command

Throughout the course of our beloved series, Stephen Maturin experiments with a truly dizzying array of drugs, due in part to his natural temperament and in part to his access as a physician. The first half of the series is dominated by his use of laudanum. He first uses it ostensibly to help him sleep and then to help him forget the various cares of his stressful life.

Laudanum is a type of opium drug, made into an alcohol solution or tincture, and occasionally it can refer to any tincture or preparation that contains opium as its main ingredient. Though many commonly think of laudanum as the drug choice of the Victorians, and it was, the benefits of the drug were first noted by the Swiss alchemist, Phillip von Hohenheim. He later took the name Paracelsus, in reference to a first century Roman who wrote a famous tract on medicine.

It was the Swiss Paracelsus, and not the Roman of the 1st century CE, who, in the 1500s, experimented with laudanum and described its uses. He gave the name laudanum to this opium tincture because of the extraordinary benefits of the drug. Laudare in Latin, means to praise. Unfortunately while Paracelsus praised the wonders of the drug, he did not recognize the highly addictive nature of opium, from which modern drugs like morphine and the street drug heroin derive.

Even though by the 19th century many were becoming aware of potential dependency on laudanum, the medication was sold and used with little regard for possible addiction, including use by a high number of physicians. Overuse of the drug caused numerous people to have lifelong addictions to laudanum. Many of the famous writers and artists of the 19th century, such as most of the Romantic poets, and Victorian writers like Wilkie Collins, used it or were addicted to it.

The drug was sold in a variety of medical preparations, which could be easily obtained, and were inexpensive. Some popular “brands” of the time include Battley’s Sedative Solution, Mother Bailey’s Quieting Syrup, and Godfrey’s Cordial. It was also called wine of opium in the 19th century, and people who became addicted to the medication called themselves opium eaters in some cases, to differentiate from those who smoked opium. In particular, Thomas de Quincey transcribed his addiction into literature, with the popular 1822 autobiographical novel, Confessions of an Opium Eater.

Laudanum was certainly one of the most widely prescribed medications of the Victorian period, not just in Europe but also in the US. It was effective too, though it was overused, and might be prescribed for anything from a cold or menstrual cramps to much more severe illnesses like yellow fever. It was best used as a pain reliever, and occasionally a fever reducer, and it also, like many pain medications, worked successfully to end diarrhea because it caused constipation. It certainly would produce sleep, and many depended upon it for just that. Others used it as street drugs might be abused today, for its hallucinogenic properties.

Though surprising to some, laudanum is still available, but only by prescription, in countries like the US. It is a Schedule II drug, which means its use is highly regulated. Prescription of it is given with due caution and under controlled circumstances so as to avoid addiction. This certainly differs from it being sold in earlier centuries, even into the early 20th century as a cheap patent medicine that was given to both adults and children.

Courtesy of Wise Geek.

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