History's Most Drug-Addled Doctors

By Howard Markel 08/05/11

In the late 1800s, both Sigmund Freud and William Stewart Halsted, the father of modern surgery,  regularly ingested vast quantities of cocaine. An excerpt from the critically acclaimed new book An Anatomy of Addiction exposes their highs and lows.

The Dr. Feelgood of yesteryear Photo via

On the morning of May 5, 1885, in lower Manhattan, a worker fell from a building’s scaffolding to the ground. A splintered bone protruded from his bloody trousers; a plaintive wail signaled his pain; and soon he was taken from the scene by horse-drawn ambulance to Bellevue Hospital. At the hospital, in the dispensary, a young surgeon named William Stewart Halsted frantically searched the shelves for a container of cocaine.

In the late 19th century, there were no such things as “controlled substances,” let alone illegal drugs. Bottles of morphine, cocaine, and other powerful, habit-forming pills and tonics were easily found in virtually every hospital, clinic, drugstore, and doctor’s black bag. Consequently, it took less than a few minutes for the surgeon to find a vial of cocaine. He drew a precise dose into a hypodermic syringe, rolled up his sleeve, and searched for a fresh spot on his scarred forearm. Upon doing so, he inserted the needle and pushed down on the syringe’s plunger. Almost immediately, he felt a wave of relief and an overwhelming sense of euphoria. His pulse bounded and his mind raced, but his body, paradoxically, relaxed.

The surgeon was entering a world of mindless bliss. He heard his name but didn’t really care to answer.

The orderlies rushed the laborer into Bellevue’s accident room (the forerunner of today’s emergency departments) for examination and treatment. A compound fracture—the breaking of a bone so severely that it pokes through the soft tissue and skin—was deadly serious in the late 19th century. Before X-ray technology, it was difficult to assess the full extent of a fracture other than by means of painful palpation or cutting open the body part in question for a closer look. Discounting the attendant risks of infection and subsequent amputation, even in the best of surgical hands these injuries often carried a “hopeless prognosis.” At Bellevue, above the table on which these battered patients were placed, a sign painted on the wall suggested the chances of recuperation. It read, in six-inch-high black letters: PREPARE TO MEET YOUR GOD.

As the worker writhed in agony, one surgeon’s name crossed the lips of every staff member working in the accident room: Halsted. When it came to a crisis of the body, few surgeons were faster or more expert than he. Leg fractures were a particular interest of his in an era when buildings were being thrown up daily and construction workers were falling off them almost as frequently. One of Dr. Halsted’s earliest scientific papers assessed the surgical repair of fractured thigh, or femur, bones using a series of geometric equations based on how the leg adducted (drew toward) and abducted (drew away) from the central axis of the body. Such meticulous analysis was essential to repairing the break in a manner that accounted for the potential of the injured limb to shorten after the injury. Otherwise, the broken leg would heal in a manner that resulted in a decided limp or, given the intricate mechanics of the hip joint, much worse.

An orderly was dispatched to find Dr. Halsted as soon as possible. Running through the labyrinthine corridors of the hospital, he shouted, “Paging Dr. Halsted! Fresh fracture in the Accident Room! Paging Dr. Halsted!” Down one of these halls, in a rarely used chamber, the surgeon was entering a world of mindless bliss. He heard his name but didn’t really care to answer. Yet something, perhaps a reflex ingrained by his many years of surgical training, roused him to stagger out into the hallway and make his way downstairs. The pupils of his eyes looked like gaping black holes, his speech was rapid-fire, and his whole body seemed to vibrate as if he were electrified. 
Upon entering the accident room, Halsted was confronted with the acrid smell of blood and a maelstrom of doctors and nurses attending to the wounded worker. So intense was the pain that when Halsted gruffly demanded the patient move his leg one way or the other, the man screamed out an emphatic “No!” Passing a hand up and down the length of the laborer’s lower leg, Halsted could feel the sharp ends of a shattered shinbone, or tibia, thrusting its way through the skin. It was a gory mess requiring immediate attention.

An effective surgeon must be able to visualize the three-dimensional aspects of the anatomy he is about to manipulate. He must take great care in handling sensitive structures surrounding the area in question, such as nerves and blood vessels, to prevent cutting through or destroying them entirely, lest the procedure cause more problems than it corrects. Consequently, the surgeon needs to think several steps ahead of the maneuver he is actively performing in order to achieve the best results for his patient. But the cocainized Halsted was in no shape to operate. 
Halsted stepped back from the examination table while the nurses and junior physicians awaited his command, mindful that in a moment bacteria could enter the wound and wreak havoc, perhaps leaving this laborer unable to walk again—or even to die from overwhelming sepsis. To their astonishment, the surgeon turned on his heels, walked out of the hospital, and hailed a cab to gallop him to his home on East 25th Street. Once there, he sank into a cocaine oblivion that lasted more than seven months.

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Howard Markel, M.D., Ph.D., is the George E. Wantz Distinguished Professor of the History of Medicine, director of the Center for the History of Medicine at the University of Michigan, and a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. He is the author of several books, including An Anatomy-Addiction. You can find Dr Markel on Twitter.