24 March 2008

Maladies & Treatments:
Laudanum, The Miracle Drug

By Vicki Gaia

In my book, Eliza's Hope, I have a scene where one of my characters is taking laudanum. This was a very popular opium based drug that was falling out of favor around the Edwardian period because of its addictive quality:

Jewel stared at the innocuous bottle in her hand. She'd taken a dose last week, and it left her feeling euphoric, easing her depression. Since her first taste, she took sporadic doses, careful to hide the bottle from Eliza. She began to rely on the laudanum to get her through the day.

Eliza reached for the bottle. "It's addicting."

"Why, it's harmless." The thick glass bottle tempted her, her innards buzzing, yearning for a taste. One more dose is all. Clutching the bottle tight, she'd take one dose and toss it in the trash.

Eliza snatched the bottle from Jewel and opened the lid. Her nose scrunched. "There have been countless horror stories about this stuff."

Of course Jewel read of women getting addicted to laudanum but she had better sense. She'd never fail William and ruin their family name. Pride ran deep in her family.
Pa had lectured daily on living a clean life, and she took it to heart. But now, what did clean living get her? She had no life of her own, no husband to love.
Laudanum has been around since Paracelsus first made it into a compound, and named it from the Latin word, laudare, to praise. It's an alcoholic solution of opium, and was prepared and used widely through the 19th century for treatment of various disorders. In 1680, laudanum was introduced in England under one of the first patent medicine brand--Sydenham's Laudanum. It was a miracle drug with claims to relieve pain, to allay irritation, to produce sleep, to check excessive secretions, to support the system and as a soporific. Laudanum was prescribed for colds to Meningitis to cardiac disease to Yellow Fever in adults and children.

Doctors weren't aware of the addictive nature of opium, and laudanum and opium-based drugs were widely spread throughout the 19th century. You can imagine how taking a daily dose of laudanum would alleviate a person's aches and pains, poverty and boredom.

Laudanum was cheaper than alcohol because it was treated as a medication for legal purposes and not taxed as an alcoholic beverage. It first became a working class drug, but its use quickly spread to the middle and upper classes. According to Wikipedia, here are a few of the famous that used it:

Lord Byron
Kate Chopin
Lewis Carroll
John Keats
Charles Dickens
Edgar Allan Poe
Mary Lincoln Todd - prescribed for anxiety, hallucinations and sleep problems. This only increased her problems and led to her eventual commitment to an asylum.

This brings up the use of this drug for women's troubles. Victorian women were prescribed the drug for relief of their vague aches, depression, menstrual cramps, and to achieve that pallid complexion prized by women at the time. Its not surprising that in the United States, most users of narcotics in the 19th century were women. Besides the drug being described for women's troubles, it was frowned upon for women to drink alcohol. This proved to be a cheap and easy alternative. Easily obtained from their doctors or pharmaceutical, they could drink it, use it in a salve, shoot it up, or take it as a suppository.

Governments began to take notice and halt the use of non-medical use of opium. It's interesting that the alternative was the manufacture of heroin, thought to be 'non-addictive' alternative to opium! Under medical supervision, morphine and opium derivatives are still used today for pain relief.