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Elizabeth Siddal. Via Wikimedia // Public Domain
Elizabeth Siddal. Via Wikimedia // Public Domain

The Lure of Laudanum, the Victorians' Favorite Drug

Elizabeth Siddal. Via Wikimedia // Public Domain
Elizabeth Siddal. Via Wikimedia // Public Domain

“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Down to a sunless sea”

Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s most famous poem, “Kubla Khan,” was written after an intense laudanum-induced dream; poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning largely depended on laudanum to function; and Lord Byron’s daughter, the celebrated mathematician Ada Lovelace, claimed laudanum calmed her overactive mind. The fact that many writers and artists of the Victorian period used laudanum is clear—but what was it about this heady drug that ensnared so many creative people?

Opium has been known since at least 3400 BCE, when the Sumerians produced the first written reference to the drug. The power of opium to dull pain while allowing the user to remain functional meant it was the drug of choice for those suffering both mental and physical anguish. In the 16th century, the alchemist Paracelsus created laudanum (possibly named from Latin words meaning “something to be praised”) by mixing a tincture of opium with alcohol. By the 17th century, the physician and medical pioneer Thomas Sydenham had simplified and standardized the recipe, marketing it as a cure-all. (Today the word laudanum refers to any alcoholic tincture of opium.)

By the 1800s laudanum was widely available—it could be easily purchased from pubs, grocers, barber shops, tobacconists, pharmacies, and even confectioners. The drug was often cheaper than alcohol, making it affordable to all levels of society. It was prescribed for everything from soothing a cranky infant to treating headaches, persistent cough, gout, rheumatism, diarrhea, melancholy, and “women’s troubles.”

 

Laudanum became widely used throughout Victorian society as a medicine, and soon many writers, poets, and artists (along with many ordinary people) became addicted. Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and many others were all known to have used laudanum. Some managed to take it briefly while ill, but others became hopelessly dependent. Most famously, the English writer Thomas De Quincey wrote a whole book—Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821)—on his use of opium and its derivatives. The book proposed that, unlike alcohol, opium improved the creative powers, an opinion that only served to make the drug more appealing to those searching for artistic and literary inspiration. A number of other writers also played on the perceived glamor of the drug, praising its ability to enhance the imagination.

Laudanum’s association with the Romantic poets likely stems from Coleridge’s addiction. Like many of his contemporaries, the poet suffered from poor health, and resorted to laudanum as both a painkiller and a sedative. Coleridge famously admitted that he had composed "Kubla Khan" after waking from an opium-induced reverie. But the drug that was at first inspiring soon became enslaving, and Coleridge’s addiction and resultant health issues plagued him for the rest of his life. The once-vibrant young man became listless and wan, and suffered terribly from withdrawal if he did not get his fix. In an 1814 letter to his friend John Morgan [PDF], Coleridge admitted it was not just the physical effects of the drug that grieved him, but its effects on his character: “I have in this one dirty business of Laudanum an hundred times deceived, tricked, nay, actually & consciously LIED. – And yet all these vices are so opposite to my nature, that but for the free-agency-annihilating Poison, I verily believe that I should have suffered myself to be cut in pieces rather than have committed any one of them.”

The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning first took laudanum at the age of 15 after suffering a spinal injury. After that, she used it for various ailments, including hemorrhaging of the lungs. When she began corresponding with the poet Robert Browning, who would later become her husband, she revealed to him that she took 40 drops of the drug a day—a pretty substantial dose even for an addict.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Image credit: Lewis Carroll via Wikimedia // Public Domain

 
Golden-haired Elizabeth Siddal was another famous laudanum user. The muse, and later wife, of the great pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, she suffered from poor health and became hopelessly addicted to laudanum. For years she continued to function despite her addiction, until she lost a baby daughter in 1861—a tragedy that deepened her desire for the mindless oblivion offered by the drug. In 1862, when she had become pregnant once more, her husband returned from dinner one night to find her unconscious after an overdose. Rossetti called for a doctor, but when the physician sadly announced he could do nothing for her, Rossetti refused to believe the diagnosis and sent for three more doctors, who all confirmed Siddal’s untimely death.

Another famous victim of laudanum addiction was Branwell Brontë, the brother of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. Together the four siblings shared the same tragic and lonely upbringing, which in the sisters unleashed a creative spark that kindled into some of the greatest works in English literature, including Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Yet Branwell, who seemingly shared the same potential talent as a poet and artist (he created respected juvenilia alongside his sisters), instead descended into alcohol and laudanum dependency, his sensibilities seemingly too delicate to take the constant rejections an artist must endure. Branwell died a penniless addict at 31 years old in 1848, just a year after his sisters’ most famous novels were published.

An ad for laudanum in the Sears catalog. Image credit: Mike Mozart via Flickr // CC BY 2.0

That so many writers and artists were known to have taken laudanum is perhaps unsurprising considering that this was an era before aspirin, anti-depressants, or effective sleeping pills. But as the negative effects of laudanum became better-documented—the euphoria it provided was followed by crashing lows, restlessness, torpor, and sweats—it became clear that the drug needed to be better regulated.

Accounts by addicts helped sway public opinion: in one influential piece published in the Journal of Mental Sciences in 1889, a drug-addicted young girl revealed her anguish during withdrawal:

“My principal feeling was one of awful weariness and numbness at the end of my back; it kept me tossing about all day and night long. It was impossible to lie in one position for more than a minute, and of course sleep was out of the question. I was so irritable that no one cared to come near me; mother slept on the sofa in my room, and I nearly kicked her once for suggesting that I should say hymns over to myself, to try and make me go to sleep. Hymns of a very different sort were in my mind, I was once or twice very nearly strangling myself, and I am ashamed to say that the only thing that kept me from doing so was the thought that I would be able to get laudanum somehow. I was conscious of feeling nothing but the mere sense of being alive, and if the house had been burning, would have thought it too much of an effort to rise.”

By 1868 laudanum could only be sold by registered chemists in England and, in a nod to its dangers, had to be clearly labeled as a poison—the first restrictions on its use. In 1899 pure aspirin was developed, a far safer painkiller, heralding an era of better-regulated medicines. And although the tortured writer self-medicating with laudanum became a thing of the past, many other illicit substances soon stepped into the breach—leaving the trope of the drug-addled creative genius safely intact.

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Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
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Head Case: What the Only Soft Tissue Dodo Head in Existence Is Teaching Scientists About These Extinct Birds
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock
Dodo: © Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Background: iStock

Of all the recently extinct animals, none seems to excite the imagination quite like the dodo—a fact Mark Carnall has experienced firsthand. As one of two Life Collections Managers at the UK's Oxford University Museum of Natural History, he’s responsible for nearly 150,000 specimens, “basically all the dead animals excluding insects and fossils,” he tells Mental Floss via email. And that includes the only known soft tissue dodo head in existence.

“In the two and a bit years that I’ve been here, there’s been a steady flow of queries about the dodo from researchers, artists, the public, and the media,” he says. “This is the third interview about the dodo this week! It’s definitely one of the most popular specimens I look after.”

The dodo, or Raphus cucullatus, lived only on the island of Mauritius (and surrounding islets) in the Indian Ocean. First described by Vice Admiral Wybrand van Warwijck in 1598, it was extinct less than 100 years later (sailors' tales of the bird, coupled with its rapid extinction, made many doubt that the dodo was a real creature). Historians still debate the extent that humans ate them, but the flightless birds were easy prey for the predators, including rats and pigs, that sailors introduced to the isolated island of Mauritius. Because the dodo went extinct in the 1600s (the actual date is still widely debated), museum specimens are very, very rare. In fact, with the exception of subfossils—the dark skeletons on display at many museums—there are only three other known specimens, according to Carnall, “and one of those is missing.” (The fully feathered dodos you might have seen in museums? They're models, not actual zoological specimens.)

A man standing with a Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird
A subfossil (bone that has not been fully fossilized) Dodo skeleton and a reconstructed model of the extinct bird in a museum in Wales circa 1938.
Becker, Fox Photos/Getty Images

Since its extinction was confirmed in the 1800s, Raphus cucullatus has been an object of fascination: It’s been painted and drawn, written about and scientifically studied, and unfairly become synonymous with stupidity. Even now, more than 300 years since the last dodo walked the Earth, there’s still so much we don’t know about the bird—and Oxford’s specimen might be our greatest opportunity to unlock the mysteries surrounding how it behaved, how it lived, how it evolved, and how it died.

 
 

To put into context how old the dodo head is, consider this: From the rule of Oliver Cromwell to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, it has been around—and it’s likely even older than that. Initially an entire bird (how exactly it was preserved is unclear), the specimen belonged to Elias Ashmole, who used his collections to found Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum in 1677. Before that, it belonged to John Tradescant the Elder and his son; a description of the collection from 1656 notes the specimen as “Dodar, from the Island Mauritius; it is not able to flie being so big.”

And that’s where the dodo’s provenance ends—beyond that, no one knows where or when the specimen came from. “Where the Tradescants got the dodo from has been the subject of some speculation,” Carnall says. “A number of live animals were brought back from Mauritius, but it’s not clear if this is one of [those animals].”

Initially, the specimen was just another one of many in the museum’s collections, and in 1755, most of the body was disposed of because of rot. But in the 19th century, when the extinction of the dodo was confirmed, there was suddenly renewed interest in what remained. Carnall writes on the museum’s blog that John Duncan, then the Keeper of the Ashmolean Museum, had a number of casts of the head made, which were sent to scientists and institutions like the British Museum and Royal College of Surgeons. Today, those casts—and casts of those casts—can be found around the world. (Carnall is actively trying to track them all down.)

The Oxford University Dodo head with scoleric bone and the skin on one side removed.
The Oxford University Dodo head with skin and sclerotic ring.
© Oxford University, Oxford University Museum of Natural History // Used with permission

In the 1840s, Sir Henry Acland, a doctor and teacher, dissected one side of the head to expose its skeleton, leaving the skin attached on the other side, for a book about the bird by Alexander Gordon Melville and H.E. Strickland called The dodo and its kindred; or, The history, affinities, and osteology of the dodo, solitaire, and other extinct birds of the islands Mauritius, Rodriguez and Bourbon. Published in 1848, “[It] brought together all the known accounts and depictions of the dodo,” Carnall says. The Dodo and its kindred further raised the dodo’s profile, and may have been what spurred schoolteacher George Clark to take a team to Mauritius, where they found the subfossil dodo remains that can be seen in many museums today.

Melville and Strickland described Oxford’s specimen—which they believed to be female—as being “in tolerable preservation ... The eyes still remain dried within the sockets, but the corneous extremity of the beak has perished, so that it scarcely exhibits that strongly hooked termination so conspicuous in all the original portraits. The deep transverse grooves are also visible, though less developed than in the paintings.”

Today, the specimen includes the head as well as the sclerotic ring (a bony feature found in the eyes of birds and lizards), a feather (which is mounted on a microscope slide), tissue samples, the foot skeleton, and scales from the foot. “Considering it’s been on display in collections and museums, pest eaten, dissected, sampled and handled by scientists for over 350 years,” Carnall says, “it’s in surprisingly good condition.”

 
 

There’s still much we don’t know about the dodo, and therefore a lot to learn. As the only soft tissue of a dodo known to exist, the head has been studied for centuries, and not always in ways that we would approve of today. “There was quite some consideration about dissecting the skin off of the head by Sir Henry Acland,” Carnall says. “Sadly there have also been some questionable permissions given, such as when [Melville] soaked the head in water to manipulate the skin and feel the bony structure. Excessive handling over the years has no doubt added to the wear of the specimen.”

Today, scientists who want to examine the head have to follow a standard protocol. “The first step is to get in touch with the museum with details about access requirements ... We deal with enquiries about our collections every single day,” Carnall says. “Depending on the study required, we try to mitigate damage and risk to specimens. For destructive sampling—where a tissue sample or bone sample is needed to be removed from the specimen and then destroyed for analysis—we weigh up the potential importance of the research and how it will be shared with the wider community.”

In other words: Do the potential scientific gains outweigh the risk to the specimen? “This,” Carnall says, “can be a tough decision to make.”

The head, which has been examined by evolutionary biologist Beth Shapiro and extinction expert Samuel Turvey as well as dodo experts Julian Hume and Jolyon Parish, has been key in many recent discoveries about the bird. “[It] has been used to understand what the dodo would have looked like, what it may have eaten, where it fits in with the bird evolutionary tree, island biogeography and of course, extinction,” Carnall says. In 2011, scientists took measurements from dodo remains—including the Oxford specimen—and revised the size of the bird from the iconic 50 pounder seen in paintings to an animal “similar to that of a large wild turkey.” DNA taken from specimen’s leg bone has shed light on how the dodo came to Mauritius and how it was related to other dodo-like birds on neighboring islands [PDF]. That DNA also revealed that the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon [PDF].

A nicobar pigeon perched on a bowl of food.
A nicobar pigeon.
iStock

Even with those questions answered, there are a million more that scientists would like to answer about the dodo. “Were there other species—plants, parasites—that depended on the dodo?” Carnall asks. “What was the soft tissue like? ... How and when did the dodo and the related and also extinct Rodrigues solitaire colonize the Mascarene Islands? What were their brains like?”

 
 

Though it’s a rare specimen, and priceless by scientific standards, the dodo head is, in many ways, just like all the rest of the specimens in the museum’s collections. It’s stored in a standard archival quality box with acid-free tissue paper that’s changed regularly. (The box is getting upgraded to something that Carnall says is “slightly schmancier” because “it gets quite a bit of use, more so than the rest of the collection.”) “As for the specific storage, we store it in vault 249 and obviously turn the lasers off during the day,” Carnall jokes. “The passcode for the vault safe is 1234ABCD …”

According to Carnall, even though there are many scientific and cultural reasons why the dodo head is considered important, to him, it isn’t necessarily more important than any of the other 149,999 specimens he’s responsible for.

“Full disclosure: All museum specimens are equally important to collections managers,” he says. “It is a huge honor and a privilege to be responsible for this one particular specimen, but each and every specimen in the collection also has the power to contribute towards our knowledge of the natural world ... This week I was teaching about a species of Greek woodlouse and the molluscs of Oxfordshire. We know next to nothing about these animals—where they live, what they eat, the threats to them, and the predators that rely on them. The same is true of most living species, sadly. But on the upside, there’s so much work to be done!”

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How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized
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Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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