Tuesday, 2 August 2016

"The Narcotics We Indulge In" – a view from the 1850s

On a recent visit to Scotney Castle, I discovered a copy of James Johnston's The Chemistry of Common Life among the many books in the Library [1]. It is an interesting book that gives descriptions of the physiology of organisms and has several sections on narcotics and their use by humans. Johnston had written on this topic earlier and his two articles published in August and November 1853 in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine were re-printed in the Journal of Psychoactive Drugs in 1985 and 1986 [2,3]. He gives us insights into the worldwide use of narcotics up to the 1850s.

Johnson was a Scot who graduated in Philosophy from the University of Glasgow and then pursued a school teaching career in Durham from 1825 to1830 [4]. Having made a successful marriage, he was able to leave teaching and pursue his interest in Chemistry, including studying with Berzelius in Sweden, and this resulted in his being appointed the foundation Reader in Chemistry and Mineralogy at the University of Durham [4]. It was in the field of Agricultural Chemistry that he was best known and his research work was recognised by Fellowship of the Royal Society in 1837 [5]. In the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Knight writes that:

Johnston became a successful popular lecturer and writer.. ..His Chemistry of Common Life.. ..was a classic popularization of up-to-date science.

Chapters in The Chemistry of Common Life [6] on the fermentation of alcohol, and its subsequent distillation, are followed by a section on "The Narcotics We Indulge In" (based on the articles in Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine). Johnston provides a wide-ranging review of the world-wide use of "narcotic indulgences", the most important of which are mentioned in his concluding comments:

Siberia has its fungus [Amanita muscaria] – Turkey, India , and China, their opium – Persia, India, and Turkey, with all Africa, from Morocco to the Cape of Good Hope, and even the Indians of Brazil, have their hemp and haschisch – India, China and the Eastern Archipelago their betel-nut and betel-pepper – The Polynesia islands their daily ava [from the ground roots of Piper methysticum] – Peru and Bolivia their long-used coca – New Granada and the Himalayas their red and common thorn-apples [Datura sanguinea and D. stramonium] – Asia and America, and all the world, we may say, their tobacco – the Florida Indians their emetic holly [Ilex vomitoria] – Northern Europe and America their ledums and sweet gale – the Englishman and German their hop, and the Frenchman his lettuce.

All these narcotics come from fungi or plants and most are familiar to us, perhaps with the exception of the use of lettuce; the sap of some types of lettuce being dried and powdered and used in a similar way, and with similar properties, to opium. Johnston describes tobacco as being consumed world-wide in the 1850s, either smoked or taken as snuff, and other narcotics were widely available: laudanum, for example, consisted of 10% powdered opium in 20 – 50% alcohol and was used as a painkiller and cough medicine, some writers and artists also taking it for the effect on their powers of creativity. The main psychoactive constituent of opium is morphine and it was known to be addictive – Coleridge was a well-known addict whose difficulties are described by Johnston.

"The Narcotics We Indulge In" concludes with a summary that adopts a high moral tone, as befits someone from the Scottish Kirk tradition:

..there exists a universal craving in the whole human race for indulgences of a narcotic kind. This is founded in the nature of man.. ..this craving assumes in every country a form which is more or less special to that country. It is modified most by climate, less by race, and least, though still very sensibly, by opportunity.. ..among every people the form of craving special to the whole undergoes subsidiary modifications among individuals. These are determined by individual constitution first, and next by opportunity..

..I may remark that, with the enticing descriptions before him, which the history of these narcotics presents, we cannot wonder that man, whose constant search on earth is after happiness, and who, too often disappointed here, hopes and longs, and strives to fit himself for happiness hereafter – we cannot wonder that he should at times be caught by the tinselly glare of this corporeal felicity, and should yield himself to habits which, though exquisitely delightful at first, lead him finally both to torture of body and to misery of mind; - that, debilitated by the excesses to which it provokes, he should sink more and more under the influence of a mere drug, and become at last a slave to its tempting seductions. We are indeed feeble creatures, and small in bodily strength, when a grain of haschisch can conquer, or a few drops of laudanum lay us prostrate; but how much weaker in  mind when, knowing the evils they lead us to, we are unable to resist the fascinating temptations of these insidious drugs!

Although Johnston admits that the use of tobacco and opiates had become global in the 1850s, he would probably have been surprised at the widespread use of drugs that is prevalent today and the various forms that they take. Clearly one difference is the development of synthetic drugs like LSD and amphetamines that are produced in chemical laboratories, rather than directly from fungi or plants. One aspect that would not have surprised him is the money involved in the production and selling of narcotics, as he remarks on the world-wide size of this industry in The Chemistry of Common Life.

The widespread use of "narcotic indulgences" for religious purposes affects whole societies, but why do some of us become addicted to narcotics, knowing that they can be destructive to physical and mental health? It is hard not to adopt Johnston's position when addressing this question, as we experiment with drugs, feel pressured by peers, want to enhance our creativity, escape boredom, or indulge for many other reasons. Apart from the change in the range of narcotics available, there are few differences between the 1850s and the 21st Century in our need for what we now call recreational drugs. Does that come as a surprise?


[2] James F. W. Johnston (1985) The narcotics we indulge in. Part I. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 17: 191-199.

[3] James F. W. Johnston (1985) The narcotics we indulge in. Part II. Journal of Psychoactive Drugs 18: 131-150.

[4] Graeme Wynn (1985) Johnston, James Finlay Weir. Dictionary of Canadian Biography Volume 8. Toronto and Québec, University of Toronto and Université Laval.

[5] David Knight (2004) Johnston, James Finlay Weir (1796-1855). Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford, Oxford University Press

[6] James F. W. Johnston (1854) The Chemistry of Common Life. New York, D. Appleton and Company.

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