CONNECTIONS: America’s opiate legacy

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By Tuesday, Sep 26 Life In the Berkshires  4 Comments
An advertisement for Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup, a calming draft containing morphine that was recommended for use in children at the beginning of the 20th century.

Opioid use in the United States has been called an epidemic and a national health crisis. The profound and deleterious effects of heroin, morphine, opium and its derivatives are felt in every part of the United States. Today we are aware, perhaps hyper-aware, of the impact on our bodies of different substances, but it was not always the case.

In the year 1905, cocaine, opium, morphine and heroin were sold by pharmacies as “perfect guardians of health.” These “medicines” were widely available without prescription. Of course, America in 1905 was different in many ways.

Advertisements for coca wine.

The average life expectancy was 47 years. The most common causes of death were pneumonia and influenza. Ninety percent of doctors did not attend college; they attended medical schools similar to trade schools where they were taught techniques. Ninety-five percent of births took place at home. Only 14 percent of American homes had a bathtub, and 8 percent had a telephone. The total number of murders in the United States in 1905 was 230. There were just 8,000 cars in America, and only144 miles of paved roads.

In 1905, ingredients in patent medicines were hailed as magic but what those ingredients were was a carefully guarded secret. It was 1906 when the Pure Food and Drug Act was passed, and listing ingredients was made mandatory. Ingredients in the most popular (determined by the Department of Psychology New York State University at Buffalo) were determined to be: Coca wine was 30 grains of cocaine per fluid ounce of wine; laudanum was 45 percent alcohol and 45 percent opium; Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was one grain of morphine per fluid ounce; and Paregoric was 46 percent alcohol and 1.8 grains opium per fluid ounce.


All these products were seen as miracle cures. Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup was even prescribed for infants. Morphine-laced toothpaste was recommended for both children and adults to “dull pain and put you in a better mood.” The most potent combination in all these products was psycho-pharmaceuticals and alcohol. For example, the ever-popular Vin Mariana combined alcohol and cocaine “for body, brain, and nerves.” Use of Vin Mariana was endorsed by celebrities, royalty and the pope.

Companies well-known today incorporated opioids in their products. For example: Bayer & Company’s early success was based on the sale of heroin, and the magic ingredient in Coca-Cola was cocaine.

Heroin as sold by Bayer & Company.

Berkshire merchants were not immune to wanting a seat on the “miracle medicine” gravy train. Jarvis Renne had a line of products that included Renne’s Magic Pain Killing Oil and Devine’s Lozenge that “works like a charm.” From 1869, Jarvis Renne was listed as a peddler of magic oil with a house and factory at 22 Frances Ave., Pittsfield. The location was clearly marked with a large sign. While we do not have the recipe for magic oil, it is a fair guess that a magic pain killer contained an opioid. At the same time, we can be fairly certain it did not make anyone violently ill or kill anyone outright because no member of the Renne family had to leave town under the cover of night. Father and son lived at the same address from 1869 to 1904.

On the other hand, Alden Knowles and Hudson Maxim were not as fortunate. Friends from their school days in Maine, they joined forces to make their fortune by passing themselves off as phrenologists, faith healers and producers of “Maxim’s Lightening Cure – Good for what ails you”. The ingredients in this lightning cure were an unhealthy combination of kerosene, camphor and herbs. When users became violently ill, Knowles and Maxim skipped town. Soon they had skipped almost all towns in New England and were convinced that healing was not their métier. They settled on North Street in Pittsfield and found success as ink manufacturers.

In 1846 there was a demonstration at Massachusetts General Hospital. A compound of ether and opium was used during surgery. The patient felt no pain. Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes was present and proclaimed it a “great discovery.”


He wrote: “Everybody wants to have a hand in a great discovery. All I will do is name it…‘Anaesthesia’ (from the Greek word for ‘lack of sensation’).”

As we face the opioid epidemic, it is wise to remember that no other single discovery aided the practice of medicine, enhanced the quality of life and extended life itself more than the ability to relieve pain. Equally we must remember opioids are addictive and never forget the unmitigated misfortune for addicts, abusers and those who over-use opioids.

The solution to the opioid epidemic is not to throw out these drugs. Those who need them should have access to them. The cost benefit has to be weighed and a balance struck. The solution is not found by wielding a hammer but by threading a needle. For better or for worse, we were always a people who believed in the efficacy of a pill and the power of an elixir to cure what ails us.

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4 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Arne Kotlen says:

    If nothing else the history information in this article is enlightening. We never learned this in history class. Thanks!

    1. Jorge Topaguar says:

      Opiates of today have a different potency and supply route as well as the medical industrial complex as pushers.

  2. Jim, Lodge says:

    Brilliant synopsis. Thank you.

  3. Tony Carlotto says:

    Another piece of history so well presented in so little space. Bravo!!

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