Opioid Crisis In The 1800s Shares Similar Roots With Today's Epidemic

By Kelly Burch 07/12/18

Just as modern doctors began using opioids to treat a variety of pain, doctors more than 100 years ago used morphine in the same way, exposing more people to the drug. 

pharmacy from the 1800s
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Aggressive advertising touting the benefits of medications, quick fixes offered by newfound wonder drugs and doctors who didn’t realize the dangers of the medications they were prescribing sound a lot like all the pieces that led to today’s opioid epidemic. However, these are a few of the causes of opioid addiction that spiked in the United States in the late 1800s, according to a report in Smithsonian.

At the time, morphine was a new medication and doctors and patients were equally enamored with it. The drug became an ingredient in everything from teething serums to constipation cures, and by 1889, Boston physician James Adams estimated that about 150,000 Americans were “medical addicts,” addicted to prescription drugs rather than opium that could be smoked. 

Just as modern doctors began using opioids to treat all types of pain, doctors more than 100 years ago used morphine to treat a variety of ailments, exposing more people to the drug. 

Morphine became “a magic wand [doctors] could wave to make painful symptoms temporarily go away,” said David Courtwright, a historian of drug use and policy at the University of North Florida and author of the book Dark Paradise: A History of Opiate Addiction in America. “It’s clear that that was the primary driver of the epidemic.”

One reason for the popularity of morphine among doctors and patients was aggressive advertising. An ad for Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup for Teething Children, which contained morphine, declared the product was “the mother’s friend.”

Most Victorians didn’t realize that the medications, which were not regulated at the time, contained potentially dangerous ingredients. When these medications were found to be effective treatment, they became increasingly popular. “If buyers took a spoonful because they had, say, a case of the runs, the medicine probably worked,” Courtwright said. 

Eventually, doctors began to realize that the heavy use of medications containing opioids was unhealthy and leading to addiction. 

“By 1900, doctors had been thoroughly warned and younger, more recently trained doctors were creating fewer addicts than those trained in the mid-nineteenth century,” Courtwright wrote in a 2015 paper for The New England Journal of Medicine.

Government regulation also played a part in regulating the crisis, Courtwright wrote. Medical experts, led by Adams, began pressuring their colleagues to move away from opioids, and states began to regulate narcotic use. This led to a sharp reduction in opioid prescriptions.

For example, in 1888, 14.5% of prescriptions filled in Boston drugstores contained opiates, but by 1908, only 3.6% of prescriptions filled in California contained the drugs. 

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Kelly Burch writes about addiction and mental health issues, particularly as they affect families. Follow her on TwitterFacebook, and LinkedIn.