11 Unbelievable Moments from Cocaine’s Early Medical History

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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.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, and starring Clive Owen, The Knick features groundbreaking surgeons, nurses and staff who push the boundaries of medicine in a time of astonishingly high mortality rates and zero antibiotics. The Knick premieres tomorrow at 10pm/9c only on Cinemax. #AtTheKnick See more at AtTheKnick.tumblr.com

August 7, 2014 - 9:03am
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