The turn-of-the-cen­tury craze for co­caine as a painkiller

The nar­cotic was widely pre­scribed by doc­tors and den­tists be­fore its reg­u­la­tion in 1920

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Health From The Archives - Louise Ní Chríodáin

When co­caine was first lauded as an anaes­thetic in the 1880s, its use as an in­gre­di­ent in medicines and pro­pri­etary “ton­ics” quickly fol­lowed. And un­til its reg­u­la­tion un­der the 1920 Dan­ger­ous Drugs Act, doc­tors and chemists is­sued pre­scrip­tions and com­piled con­coc­tions for adults – and chil­dren – us­ing the nar­cotic, and its source, the coca leaf.

Many ac­counts of co­caine use for med­i­cal ex­am­i­na­tions and surg­eries ap­peared in The Ir­ish Times – the Ger­man Crown Prince was a re­cip­i­ent in 1888.

How­ever, one of the more fas­ci­nat­ing re­ports oc­curs in 1897, at Dublin’s Eye and Ear Hospi­tal. “A pig’s eye­lid was cut off a fresh slaugh­tered an­i­mal and grafted over the eye of a man named John Ryan . . . a na­tive of Clon­mel . . . one doc­tor kept pour­ing co­caine into the eye, while an­other staunched the blood.”

Den­tists were also quick to see the drug’s po­ten­tial. In an 1888 edi­tion, Grafton Street’s Den­tal Sup­ply Com­pany promised “Pain­less Den­tistry”, “Gas and Co­caine ad­min­is­tered daily”, while The Ir­ish-Amer­i­can Den­tal Sur­geons ad­ver­tised “Pain­less Ex­trac­tions by gas or co­caine from 2s 6d”.

What may seem sur­pris­ing is that co­caine’s ad­dic­tive po­ten­tial was flagged al­most im­me­di­ately. In 1887, at a Bri­tish Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion meet­ing in Trin­ity Col­lege, Dr N Kerr, pres­i­dent of the So­ci­ety for the Study of Ine­bri­ety, de­scribed “ine­bri­ety” as a “true in­tox­i­ca­tion ma­nia”, say­ing it as­sumed many forms . . . “al­co­hol, opium, chlo­ral, chlo­ro­form . . . ether or co­caine.”

The new panacea, how­ever, fea­tured reg­u­larly in the pa­per’s “House­hold Hints & Recipes” of the late 1880s. It sug­gests “Co­caine Tooth Pow­der”, “use­ful for toothache and spongy gums”, and “Coca for trou­ble­some throats . . . ” , but adds: “To be of any de­cided value it must be made from the coca leaves. Very much of the coca wine on the mar­ket is merely a so­lu­tion of co­caine, which can­not be too se­verely con­demned.”

Coca Wine had been widely im­bibed even be­fore the 1880s. Both Queen Vic­to­ria and Pope Pius X were said to en­joy a glass. “La Rochelle’s” was one pop­u­lar brand: “Pre­pared from Peru­vian Coca Leaves. A valu­able Stim­u­lat­ing Tonic in cases of de­bil­ity and for per­sons re­cov­er­ing from ill­ness, es­pe­cially in the sleep­less­ness aris­ing from ner­vous ex­haus­tion. Price 2s 6D.”

In 1897, how­ever, an alarm­ing front page ar­ti­cle warned of “Coca Wine and Its Dan­gers” and de­cried its in­creas­ing con­sump­tion as a “source of dan­ger to the na­tional health”.

Read­ers were told: “School-mis­tresses, as a rule, have a deep-rooted be­lief in the ef­fi­cacy of the pop­u­lar drug, and give it to their pupils on the slight­est provo­ca­tion, in com­plete ig­no­rance of the fact that they are es­tab­lish­ing a lik­ing not only for al­co­hol but for the far more in­sid­i­ous and per­ni­cious poi­son, co­caine.”

Co­caine be­came a first aid es­sen­tial. A cy­cling cor­re­spon­dent, de­scrib­ing prepa­ra­tions for an 1889 jour­ney, rec­om­mends: “cal­en­du­lated vase­line, which suits for the cham or fric­tional sore­ness be­tween the legs; . . . Co­caine tabloids, a few safety pins...”

In 1890 “Co­caine Pen­cils” are pro­posed for chafed skin,” . . .an ad­di­tion of two per cent of co­caine to the or­di­nary ca­coa but­ter pen­cils con­verts the lat­ter into a cos­metic rem­edy, which gives al­most in­stant re­lief when rubbed over the ir­ri­tated spot.” And in 1895 when the Prince of Wales gets “some­thing in his eye” while out shoot­ing, the re­sponse of an ac­com­pa­ny­ing medic is to ad­min­is­ter: “an in­jec­tion of co­caine”.

A front page para­graph in 1894 of­fers ad­vice for: “Emer­gency Treat­ment of a Toothache”: “When the gums are swollen and ten­der paint two or three times, two min­utes apart, with a four per cent so­lu­tion of co­caine.” Rub­bing co­caine into the gums was a pop­u­lar rem­edy, but one with pos­si­ble fa­tal con­se­quences. In 1895 a vicar tells a Coro­ner’s Court how his de­ceased wife, “had suf­fered much with neu­ral­gic pains in the gums, for which she had oc­ca­sion­ally used co­caine as a lo­cal anaes­thetic.”

As the dis­pens­ing of co­caine con­tin­ued to in­crease, warn­ings about its po­ten­tial harm were sounded. An 1898 ar­ti­cle quotes a Bri­tish Med­i­cal Jour­nal de­scrip­tion of “co­caine poi­son­ing”, as “the third great scourge of the world, al­co­hol and opium be­ing the first and sec­ond.”

How­ever, the pop­u­lar­ity of coca and its off­spring didn’t di­min­ish. Sedna was just one much ad­ver­tised elixir, which claimed to be rec­om­mended by doc­tors. One 1903 ad for this com­bi­na­tion of “Port wine, ex­tract of beef, Kola nuts and Coca leaves” de­scribed it as: “The magic drink that sends the blood puls­ing through the veins, gives you new life, and makes it worth liv­ing . . .”

In 1905, de­spite be­ing de­clared a poi­son by the Coun­cil of the Phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal So­ci­ety, its use re­mained wide­spread. In 1909, a Lon­don re­port dis­cusses the “ton­ics” be­ing used to pass in­sur­ance med­i­cals. One “po­tent pick-me-up”, is no se­cret ex­plains a chemist. Un­der the in­flu­ence of the coca plant: “. . . pub­lic men have been known to rise from the couch of phys­i­cal in­fir­mity . . . The dullest in­tel­lect seems to be roused by the stim­u­lant”. How­ever, he warned that these ton­ics were “dan­ger­ous com­pounds of death”, rather than elixirs of life.

“Medico”, the pa­per’s health cor­re­spon­dent, also con­tin­ued to rec­om­mend its cu­ra­tive pow­ers. In 1909 reader “Coun­try Mouse”, is ad­vised to: “buy a quar­ter pound of coca leaves from the chemist’s, and in­fuse a small hand­ful . . . in boil­ing wa­ter like tea, let it stand for twenty min­utes, and then drink it, ei­ther plain or with a lit­tle milk and sugar. You will not like it at first, but you will soon be­come ac­cus­tomed to it, and even en­joy it, as it is most strength­en­ing and re­viv­ing when you feel tired out or weak.”

His 1912 pre­scrip­tion for throat spray, mean­while, in­cluded: 16grs of co­caine, and a 1914 sore nose rem­edy was “try sy­ring­ing the nos­trils morn­ing and evening with a so­lu­tion of car­bolic and co­caine…”

Mean­while, when reg­u­la­tions were fi­nally in­tro­duced re­strict­ing pre­scrip­tions, and pro­hibit­ing chemists from mak­ing com­pounds us­ing co­caine, they were not uni­ver­sally wel­comed. There were ob­jec­tions from doc­tors, phar­ma­cists and even farm­ers – who used prepa­ra­tions con­tain­ing co­caine to treat live­stock.

Our cor­re­spon­dent com­plained: “com­mon prepa­ra­tions were be­ing put be­hind a screen of red tape, and farm­ers may be forced to in­ter­view their doc­tors be­fore they can buy a bo­lus for a cow.”

School mis­tresses, as a rule, have a deep-rooted be­lief in the ef­fi­cacy of the pop­u­lar drug, and give it to their pupils

Clock­wise from left: A car­toon in the “Weekly Ir­ish Times” in De­cem­ber, 1906; A late 19th-cen­tury Amer­i­can ad­ver­tise­ment for Co­caine Toothache Drops; An ad­ver­tise­ment for Sedna in “The Ir­ish Times” in March, 1903.

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