Morphine History

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

Morphine and other opiates have been known to mankind for centuries. Applications of the drug have been varied ranging from pain relief for war injuries and chronic painful diseases through to recreational use among drug abusers. The less desirable effects of upload use include constipation, sleepiness, nausea and vomiting.

Rise of opium addiction

In the 18th century, Europe had a high demand for Chinese goods such as tea and silk but the Chinese did not have a high demand for European goods, creating a trade deficit. In order to pay China back for their goods, Britain gave China the only commodity they would accept which was silver. However, to obtain enough silver, the British had to buy it from other European countries, creating further debt.

In 1773 ,the British conquered the Bengal Province in India which the World's largest producer of opium at the time. With the Indian poppy fields now under British control, Britain decided to start trading opium as a way of addressing the trade imbalance between China and Britain. Soon, opium addiction had spread across China and in 1839 the emperor seized and burned all opium brought in by British ships. This marked the beginning of the opium wars, during which the British defeated the Chinese and resumed the opium trade.

Advent of Morphine

With the development of transport networks and the dawn of industrialization in America, many Asians fled to America to work. They brought with them the opium that was so common in their country and the use of the drug became common. Opium addiction rose in alarming proportions and the drug was frequently found in people's homes throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.

Alternatives to opium were soon sought. Scientists wanted to preserve the medicinal properties of opium such as pain relief and cough suppression but they also wanted to modify the drug so that it was less addictive.

Between 1805 and 1816, a pharmacist's assistant called Friedrich Wilhelm Serturner managed to isolate a yellowish-white crystalline compound from crude opium after immersing it in ammoniated hot water. He first tested this compound on a few dogs which resulted in their death. He then tested smaller doses on himself and some boys and found that the effects were pain relief and euphoria. He also noted that high doses of the drug could lead to psychiatric effects, nausea, vomiting, depression of the cough, constipation and slowed breathing. Pain relief with the use of this compound, however, was ten times that experienced with opium use. Serturner named his compound morphine, after the Greek God of dreams, Morpheus.

Morphine as a medicine

Morphine soon began to gain popularity as a pain reliever. The drug was commercially produced in the mid-19th century and was used as an alternative to opium and also as a substitution therapy to help cure opium addiction. In 1853, the first hypodermic needle was perfected providing an enhanced mode of administration where the drug could be delivered directly to the bloodstream.

Morphine restriction

During the mid-19th century, both opium and cocaine addiction were on the rise and laudanum (an opium tonic) and snuff which contained cocaine were popular.

Soldiers who had been injured during war became some of the first people to develop morphine addiction and morphine dependence was nicknamed "Soldier's Disease." Increasingly, morphine was being injected using hypodermic needles.

In the early 20th century, governments and governing bodies worldwide passed tough legislations banning morphine abuse. For example, the Harrison Narcotics Act which restricted morphine abuse was passed by Congress in 1914. Similarly, in 1970, the Controlled Substances Act which classifies morphine as a schedule II drug, was passed.

Reviewed by , BSc

Further Reading

Last Updated: Oct 27, 2013

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