The medical use of opium spread to Europe from the Middle East during the Medieval period. During the 16th century physicians were aware of its dangers as well as its benefits, and by the 17th century its use was commonplace. Thomas Sydenham, who in the 1660s introduced the use of laudanum, a tincture of around 10% opium in alcohol, wrote that ‘Of all the remedies it has pleased almighty God to give man to relieve his suffering, none is so universal and so efficacious as opium’. By the early 19th century opium was freely available and used for a wide variety of conditions for all ages. Until the Pharmacy Act of 1868, anyone could buy it.
James Currie, a progressive physician based in Liverpool at the end of the 1700s, wrote in Medical Reports on the Effects of Water, Cold and Warm, as a Remedy for Fever and Febrile Diseases (1797, p. 197), that the effect of,
opium, given in health … is to increase the sensibility, to give a gaiety and liveliness to the imagination, and to diffuse a genial glow over the surface and extremities… In this state we sink into those happy slumbers which are ill exchanged for the realities of life.
Currie recommended the use of opium with other ingredients for dysentery. He was a member of the literary circle in Liverpool, which is where Samuel Taylor Coleridge met him in 1800.
Opium was recommended for scurvy, for coughs, for keeping children quiet, for yellow fever, meningitis, menstrual pains and diarrhoea. Most medical conditions were treated with opium pills or laudanum, though self-treatment often led to fatal accidents.
Coleridge took opium ‘to check a dysentery’. In Samuel Crumpe’s book on the drug shown here, An Inquiry into the Nature and Properties of Opium, he reports that several authors have condemned its use for the condition but references Sydenham’s success with laudanum. Crumpe, however, says that he is ‘prejudiced in its favour’, and that where opium has failed it is because it has not been given ‘at sufficiently short intervals, or in sufficient doses’.