The turn-of-the-century wonder drug

Extracted from the coca plant found in the Andean highlands region of South America, cocaine hydrochloride, or simply cocaine, was introduced to the medical community in the mid-19th century when German chemist Alfred Niemann discovered its capabilities as a stimulant.

From the mid-century point forward, people began using cocaine as a recreational feel good. It was highly expensive, but delivered results and developed a rather loyal fan base (though the nature of their loyalty would be unknown for many years).

In 1884, recreational cocaine enthusiast Sigmund Freud, the future father of psychoanalysis, published, “On Coca,” a treatise on his favorite new substance. History House writes that he had become a fan of the substance after hearing of its fatigue-fighting effects on the German army and trying it himself. He felt that it raised his spirits, leaving him vibrant. He even thought that it might help convince the parents of his beloved that he was worthy of her hand in marriage.

Around this time, Freud formed a friendship with an Austrian ophthalmologist named Carl Koller. They experimented with the drug on themselves before Koller had a breakthrough idea. He began using drops of cocaine solution to prevent eye movement and pain during surgery. It drastically reduced the risk involved in such surgeries, as surgeons had to combat involuntary movements of the eye to complete procedures.

The word of this wonder drug soon spread. Doctors started using it for throat and sinus operations. As it was further explored, researchers discovered psychoactive properties. Physicians began prescribing the drug to calm patients’ anxiety, fight off their depressive demons, and to help drug addicts to overcome their dependencies.

But as previously mentioned, the medical community, and in turn the general public, were ignorant of the addictive qualities of cocaine. In a Mental Floss piece promoting the film The Knick, a writer stated that former Surgeon General William Hammond advised that the use of cocaine was similar in nature to your morning coffee or tea. Except that it gave the user super powers.

Pharmacists reported during this time that the substance was the fifth highest-selling drug in the United States. Unlike drugs of today, cocaine didn’t need a pharmaceutical sales rep to push the product—it sold itself.

Cocaine was added to a multitude of products—wines, cigars, and soft drinks to name a few. It is commonly known that Coca-Cola’s original recipe included the substance. It was marketed as a headache cure before another pharmacist purchased the formula and created what is now the Coca-Cola Company. Thomas Edison and Jules Verne were frequent users of Vin Mariani, a cocaine-infused Bordeaux.

Cocaine-filled hypodermic needles were used for a quick pick-me-up and kids took drops to alleviate the pain of toothaches. According to the Mental Floss piece, it was even reported to help children overcome shyness.

But then the curtain closed. By the turn of the century, medical researchers were gaining a better understanding of the effects of the drug. Reports of addiction, especially among doctors and pharmacists, were alarming to government officials, who began taking an interest. Passed in 1914, the Harrison Narcotic Act swiftly limited the legal use of cocaine.

Today, of course, we know that cocaine is a highly addictive, dangerous narcotic capable of sending users into deadly cardiac arrest. Hallucinations, increased body temperature and heart rate, and convulsions can also be experienced. But for little more than half-a-century, it was celebrated as a cure-all, endorsed by all corners of the medical community, from dentists to allergists to psychiatrists.

Which makes me wonder: what are the things that we are doing right now that will make our descendants shake their heads 50 years from now?


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