11 Unbelievable Moments from Cocaine’s Early Medical History


In 1900, cocaine wasn’t just a drug – it was the drug that could cure anything that ailed a patient. Here’s how it came to be Americans’ medicine of choice in the first decade of the 20th century.

1. The Eyes Have It

Although cocaine would later be prescribed for scores of dubious reasons, its initial medical use was legitimate. In 1884 Austrian ophthalmologist Carl Koller discovered that placing a few drops of a cocaine solution on a patient’s cornea rendered the eye temporarily immobile and insensitive to pain. Eye surgery, which had previously been extremely difficult due to the eye’s involuntary movements, was suddenly much less risky.

2. On the Nose

News of Koller’s discovery quickly spread throughout the medical world. Doctors quickly realized that cocaine was useful for numbing more than just eyes – it could be used as an anesthetic for procedures on the throat and nose as well. While it sounds crazy now, these extensions were actually medically sound – cocaine is still used as an anesthetic in some sinus procedures.

3. Topping the Charts

Cocaine may have been used as a medicine, but it wasn’t regulated like one. Skeptics worried about the wonder drug’s addictiveness as it spread in popularity, but some of the brightest medical minds scoffed at any concerns – in the 1880s famed neurologist and former Surgeon General William A. Hammond claimed that cocaine habits were no different than tea or coffee habits and that patients could quit cold turkey. By 1900, Americans could walk into any pharmacy and purchase a gram of pure cocaine for 25 cents. Cocaine was one of the country’s five best-selling pharmaceuticals that year.

4. Creative Packaging

At the turn of the 20th century, cocaine was being mixed into everything from soft drinks to wines to medicinal tonics. Some pharmaceutical companies even sold cocaine-laced cigars as a pick-me-up for smokers. Large mail-order companies offered pocket-sized kits that included a hypodermic needle so patients could give themselves cocaine injections.

5. Cheers to Cocaine

Cocaine fans weren’t just injecting and smoking cocaine. Many of the era’s top minds were devotees of Vin Mariani, a patent medicine consisting of Bordeaux wine and coca leaves. A single fluid ounce of the concoction packed six milligrams of cocaine, and it soon became a popular over-the-counter cure for anyone who needed a boost. Some of the era’s biggest names bought into these medicinal effects, including Thomas Edison, Jules Verne, and the McKinley White House.

6. The Best Medicine

Cocaine was more than just a topical anesthetic and stimulant in 1900. It was hawked as a cure for nearly anything. A Connecticut pharmacy’s 1905 newspaper ad boasted, “Coca wine will make a new man or woman of you. Invigorates and stimulates the brain, muscles, nerves, stomach, and heart.” Among the additional diagnoses it was prescribed for: hemorrhoids, indigestion, appetite suppression and fatigue.

7. A Kick in the Teeth

Nothing’s worse than having a toothache, but desperate dental patients of the early 20th century had a magic bullet: cocaine-laden toothache drops. The drops were effective on two fronts. Cocaine’s anesthetic effects soothed the sufferer’s pain as the drug stimulated them into better moods.

8. For the Kids

Cocaine cures weren’t exclusively for adults. Cocaine toothache drops were marketed to children, and coca wines came packaged with dosing instructions for children. In addition to its anesthetic properties, cocaine was hailed as a cure for shyness in children!

9. Singing Cocaine’s Praises

Even without a toothache, patients could take cocaine lozenges as the cure for all manner of oral ailments. In 1900 a Belgian pharmacy marketed cocaine throat drops as “indispensable for singers, teachers, and orators.”

10. Making It Official

Hay fever sufferers loved the therapeutic effects of cocaine so much that in 1884 the United States Hay Fever Association honored the drug as its official remedy. Throughout the early 20th century allergists kept recommending the use of cocaine to ward off hay fever.

11. Doctors Need a Fix

With cocaine so readily available at cheap prices, Americans began getting addicted at an alarming rate. By 1902, upwards of 200,000 Americans were cocaine addicts. A disproportionate number of these addicts were doctors, dentists, and pharmacists – who faced a disastrous combination of stressful, high-stakes work and easy access to piles of cocaine. As the number of addicts swelled to epidemic levels, states and local governments began to crack down on unregulated cocaine use.

Matthew Simmons/Getty Images
How Accurate are Hollywood Medical Dramas? A Doctor Breaks It Down
Matthew Simmons/Getty Images
Matthew Simmons/Getty Images

Medical dramas like Grey's Anatomy get a lot of things wrong when it comes to the procedures shown on the screen, but unless you're a doctor, you'd probably never notice.

For its latest installment, WIRED's Technique Critique video series—which previously blessed us with a dialect coach's critique of actors' onscreen accents—tackled the accuracy of medical scenes in movies and TV, bringing in Annie Onishi, a general surgery resident at Columbia University, to comment on emergency room and operating scenes from Pulp Fiction, House, Scrubs, and more.

While Onishi breaks down just how inaccurate these shows and movies can be, she makes it clear that Hollywood doesn't always get it wrong. Some shows, including Showtime's historical drama The Knick, garner praise from Onishi for being true-to-life with their medical jargon and operations. And when doctors discuss what music to play during surgery on Scrubs? That's "a tale as old as time in the O.R.," according to Onishi.

Other tropes are very obviously ridiculous, like slapping a patient during CPR and telling them to fight, which we see in a scene from The Abyss. "Rule number one of CPR is: never stop effective chest compressions in order to slap or yell words of encouragement at the patient," Onishi says. "Yelling at a patient or cheering them on has never brought them back to life." And obviously, taking selfies in the operating room in the middle of a grisly operation like the doctors on Grey's Anatomy do would get you fired in real life.

There are plenty of cliché words and phrases we hear over and over on doctor shows, and some are more accurate than others. Asking about a patient's vitals is authentic, according to Onishi, who says it's something doctors are always concerned with. However, yelling "We're losing him!" is simply for added TV drama. "I have never once heard that in my real life," Onishi says.

[h/t WIRED]

Farrin Abbott, SLAC/Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
An Ancient Book Blasted with High-Powered X-Rays Reveals Text Erased Centuries Ago
Farrin Abbott, SLAC/Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Farrin Abbott, SLAC/Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A book of 10th-century psalms recovered from St. Catherine’s Monastery on Egypt's Sinai Peninsula is an impressive artifact in itself. But the scientists studying this text at the U.S. Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University were less interested in the surface text than in what was hidden beneath it. As Gizmodo reports, the researchers were able to identify the remains of an ancient Greek medical text on the parchment using high-powered x-rays.

Unlike the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland, the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Lightsource (SSRL) used by the scientists is a much simpler and more common type of particle accelerator. In the SSRL, electrons accelerate to just below the speed of light while tracing a many-sided polygon. Using magnets to manipulate the electrons' path, the researchers can produce x-ray beams powerful enough to reveal the hidden histories of ancient documents.

Scanning an ancient text.
Mike Toth, R.B. Toth Associates, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In the case of the 10th-century psalms, the team discovered that the same pages had held an entirely different text written five centuries earlier. The writing was a transcription of the words of the prominent Greek physician Galen, who lived from 130 CE to around 210 CE. His words were recorded on the pages in the ancient Syriac language by an unknown writer a few hundred years after Galen's death.

Several centuries after those words were transcribed, the ink was scraped off by someone else to make room for the psalms. The original text is no longer visible to the naked eye, but by blasting the parchment with x-rays, the scientists can see where the older writing had once marked the page. You can see it below—it's the writing in green.

X-ray scan of ancient text.
University of Manchester, SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, Flickr // CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Now that the researchers know the hidden text is there, their next step will be uncovering as many words as possible. They plan to do this by scanning the book in its entirety, a process that will take 10 hours for each of the 26 pages. Once they've been scanned and studied, the digital files will be shared online.

Particle accelerators are just one tool scientists use to decipher messages that were erased centuries ago. Recently, conservationists at the Library of Congress used multispectral imaging, a method that bounces different wavelengths of light off a page, to reveal the pigments of an old Alexander Hamilton letter someone had scrubbed out.

[h/t Gizmodo]


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