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Cocaine for Snowblindness—and Other Antarctic Remedies

In a bygone era, South Pole explorers filled their first-aid kits with a bevy of now-illicit substances.

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By Bryan Le

09/28/12

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Before Facebook existed, those in search of adventure were known to strike out for the South Pole—but their carry-on bags may have included some items not unfamiliar to a modern-day drug user, according to Gavin Francis, a modern Antarctic enthusiast and writer. In his piece in the most recent issue of Granta, Francis writes that the men of Ernest Shackleton's 1907–1909 Nimrod expedition brought along an array of now-illicit drugs—not for recreational purposes, but for first aid. They cleared “snowblindness” by dripping cocaine into their eyes, stopped diarrhea with “chalk ground up with opium,” and cured colic (better known today as gallstones) with a “tincture of cannabis” mixed with a “tincture of chili pepper.”

Unsurprisingly, the effectiveness of these remedies was limited. Whisky, which they brought along for warmth, didn't protect the explorers from the harsh weather; one injured adventurer even went to his death by walking outside so his handicap wouldn't slow down his team. And when scientific curiosity alone wasn't enough to keep them trudging through the snow, they'd pop a “Forced March”—a pill made of blended cocaine and caffeine taken hourly. The only antidotes they stowed that are considered remotely medical today were aspirin and morphine. But despite carrying a smorgasbord of substances, documentation suggests they were rarely tempted to overdo it—in fact, they erred on the side of abstinence, even when it proved painful. In 1912, Robert Falcon Scott, commander of the doomed British expedition to the South Pole, refused morphine before starving and freezing to death in his tent. “[M]ust be near the end,” he wrote in his journal shortly before he died. “Have decided it shall be natural.”

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