Monday, June 17, 2013

The Cure All

Laudanum, a tincture of opium, was initially created and named (after the Latin word laudare, meaning to praise) by a 16th century Swiss-German alchemist who discovered the elixir had to ability to reduce pain. By the 1800’s the popularity of the medicine had spread worldwide. Considering the ailments and diseases people faced, it’s easy to understand how laudanum had become the miracle drug of its time. 

Though it was mixed or created with several bases, anything from honey to wine, laudanum was usually a reddish-brown color and hosted a bitter, distinct taste. Its main two ingredients were opium and alcohol. Containing morphine and codeine, the tincture was used to treat almost any aliment from pain relief to diarrhea. (It is still prescribed for severe diarrhea and a derivate of laudanum is given to babies going through withdrawals after being born to addicted mothers.)

Mary Todd Lincoln was addicted to laudanum, as were several other well-verified historical figures, which was not uncommon. Women were often encouraged to use laudanum daily for menstrual cramps, to assist in getting a full night’s sleep, and promote overall health and well-being. 

Cheaper than a bottle of gin or wine because it was labeled as medicine and not subject to being taxed as an alcoholic beverage, laudanum was easily acquired and stocked as a staple in most general stores. Its over-use caused some communities to ‘limit’ purchases to doctors or medical professionals only, but for the most part there were no laws or even warnings about using, distributing, or making laudanum. 

The cure-all's downfall happened in the early twentieth century. In 1906 the US Pure Food and Drug Act required all tinctures to be properly and accurately labeled with an ingredients list, This supposedly eliminated over 30% of laudanum producers and in 1914 the Harrison Narcotics Act restricted the manufacture and distribution of opiates, including laudanum. 

Posted by Lauri Robinson


Lyn Horner said...

Terrific information, Lauri. It's definitely a keeper. Thanks much!

Ellen O'Connell said...

Interesting post, Lauri. I just did research not on laudanum specifically but on patent medicines for my newest romance, Into the Light. What started me off there were formulas for malaria that included quinine but also other ingredients. I found fascinating stuff, including the fact that some things which started out as patent medicines did work and are still with us. The dangerous ingredients were excluded, but things like Bayer Aspirin started out long ago as patent medicines.

Lauri said...

Thanks, Lyn.

There truly is some amazing and scary stuff out there when we start researching, isn't there, Ellen?

Thanks for your comments, ladies!

Ciara Gold said...

Interesting as I hadn't realized when they stopped making laudanum and yet without thinking, we tend to have that historical patient take the medicine without much thought to its actual ingredients. Thanks so much for educating me further.

Caroline Clemmons said...

I don't know if paregoric is an opiate or not, but I know it used to be given for colic and was available in Texas long after it was banned in California. No wonder so many women died early, they were addicted to opiates.

Jacquie Rogers said...

I researched patent medicines for Much Ado About Marshals and wrote about it on Romancing The West today, although it was about Dr. Liebig's Lost Manhood Restorer. I also have a scene that uses the effects of laudanum, and it was really a challenge to find out what would be considered an overdose but not fatal. The problem came from having so many brands that recommended different dosages.

Meg Mims said...

WHOA! I knew Mrs. Lincoln was addicted, but they give it to BABIES? Gosh. Thank goodness people woke up around the turn of the century to its dangers.