Opium in the Library: Remedy & Reverie in the 18th and 19th Centuries

By Hannah Johnston, Library Volunteer

Writing on opium and opioids in the 20th century, particularly in the United States, was often characterized by an interest in the mechanisms of addiction, a growing concern for public health, and a widespread and a deep-rooted fear of the “dope evil.”[1] Only two centuries earlier, however, the “dope evil” was instead “a safe, and noble Panacea.”[2] While there was certainly an understanding of the addictive nature of opium and, to some extent, concern over its safety, many writers in the 18th and 19th centuries were simply fascinated by the drug.

Two works in particular, The Mysteries of Opium Reveal’d by Dr. John Jones (1645–1709) and The Seven Sisters of Sleep by botanist Mordecai Cubitt Cooke (1825–1914), showcase this interest in the origins, nature, and various uses of the drug. While differing in their goals and their opinions on the primary benefits of opium, both works demonstrate some of the ways eighteenth- and nineteenth-century writers grappled with a substance unlike any they had previously encountered. In conversation with each other, The Mysteries and The Seven Sisters can reveal how changing ideas in medicine, culture, and politics influenced the perception and use of opium in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Considered one of the first comprehensive works on the effects and mechanisms of opium, The Mysteries of Opium Reveal’d aimed to demonstrate how, when used effectively, the drug could be a reliable and incredibly useful medicine.[3] Dr. John Jones first explained the origins, nature, uses, and possible misuses of opium.[4] Jones’ book was what one might expect from an eighteenth-century English medical book—while he did devote time to discussing the history and recreational use of opium, he was most deeply invested in unearthing the mechanisms by which opium “lulls, sooths, and, as it were, charms the Mind ….[5]

Jones_Mysteries of opium reveald_1700_plate1_watermark

A table of opiate dosages to give to various populations of men and women from John Jones’s Mysteries of opium reveal’d (1701). NYAM Collection.

More than a hundred years later, in the mid-19th century, Mordecai Cubitt Cooke wrote a very different kind of opium book. The Seven Sisters of Sleep focuses on seven narcotic drugs – opium, tobacco, cannabis, betel nut, cocaine, datura (a genus of hallucinogenic plants), and fly agaric (a psychoactive mushroom) – allegorically described as the “sisters” of the Queen of Sleep, who each ruled over different portions of the world.[6] Six of Cooke’s twenty-six chapters were devoted to opium in various respects, and the appendix of the book included tables and information on the use and trade of opium on a global scale.[7] While Jones was more concerned with the proper way of producing opium, dosage for various ailments, and outlining the drug’s exact effects on the body (he noted that opium primarily impacted the stomach), The Seven Sisters was primarily focused on recreational or regular use of the drug, and offered personal accounts of experiences with opium as well as comprehensive reports of opium use, particularly in China.[8]

Cooke_SevenSistersOfSleep_1860_370_watermark

A table of opium and its substitutes, from Mordecai Cubitt Cooke’s The seven sisters of sleep: Popular history of the seven prevailing narcotics of the world (1860). NYAM Collection.

Cooke_SevenSistersOfSleep_1860_368_watermark

A table estimating the amount of people taking narcotics around the world, from Mordecai Cubitt Cooke’s The seven sisters of sleep: Popular history of the seven prevailing narcotics of the world (1860). NYAM Collection.

Writing on the possible pitfalls of opium use, Jones argued that opium “does not diminish or disable the Spirits by any means whatsoever… when duely and moderately used. Cooke, however, addressed several rather terrifying side effects of the drug.[9] He devoted his twelfth chapter to the dangers of opium, describing in vivid detail the horrifying dreams had by some opium users and noting the occurrences of violent psychotic breaks fueled by opium use.[10] While both works discuss the “noxious principle” of the drug, Cooke devotes far more discussion to its potential for misuse, perhaps reflecting a growing understanding and worry about opium’s addictive nature.[11]

Both works made a point to discuss the place of opium on the global stage; the differing ways each author approached the subject, however, reveal the rapidly increasing role of opium in British imperial activities around the world. Jones’ discussion of this subject is limited mostly to the origins of opium, where he notes the relative quality of opium sourced from different countries.[12] Cooke’s work, on the other hand, was published after the Opium Wars between Britain and China of the previous two decades, and reflects the importance of opium in British imperial growth. He described the ways that different ethnic groups used opium, particularly in Asia, and included reports on the rates of opium use throughout different parts of China.[13] Although largely refraining from the demonizing Chinese opium users, which often happened in late 19th century Britain and the United States, Cooke’s writing suggests a British fascination with opium as a cultural import as well as a recreational drug.

The Mysteries of Opium Reveal’d and The Seven Sisters of Sleep reflect the many ways in which views on opium have changed over the last three hundred years. All in all, both writers were invested in defending the use of opium, and noted the many pleasurable effects the drug had on mind and body. However, the ways in which these effects were described by each writer show how the changing political and cultural climate altered the place of opium in the public mind and on the global stage. These works can offer us a glimpse into the worldviews and events that informed the evolving understanding of opium, its uses, and its dangers.

This blog post was written to complement The New York Academy of Medicine’s  Opioid Symposium, held on Friday, September 20th, 2019. You can also “adopt” The Mysteries of Opium Reveal’d, featured in this blog post, and other related works, to help ensure their care and preservation. See more information about this here

References

[1] Several articles in [Lawrence Boardman Dunham clippings and correspondence albums], Dec 1926 to Sept 1932, Volume 1, Manuscripts, New York Academy of Medicine Library, New York, NY.

[2] Dr. John Jones, The Mysteries of Opium Reveal’d (London: 1701), 1. All emphasis original unless stated otherwise.

[3] Ibid; Richard J. Miller and Phuong B. Tran, “More Mysteries of Opium Reveal’d: 300 Years of Opiates,” Trends in Pharmacological Sciences 21 (August 2000), 299–304.

[4] Jones, 1.

[5] Jones, 216.

[6] Mordecai Cubitt Cooke, The Seven Sisters of Sleep: Popular History of the Seven Prevailing Narcotics of the World (London: 1860), 1–5.

[7] Ibid, 357–371.

[8] Ibid, 163–180, 357–371.

[9] Jones, 81.

[10] Cooke, 163–180.

[11] Jones, 1; Cooke.

[12] Jones, 6.

[13] Cooke, 132–148, 366–368.

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About nyamhistory

The Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health, which includes the Library, promotes the scholarly and public understanding of the history of medicine and public health and the history of the book. Established in 2012, the Center aims to build bridges among an interdisciplinary community of scholars, educators, clinicians, curatorial and conservation professionals, and the general public. The Center’s Library is one of the largest medical collections in the United States open to the general public, to whom it has been available since 1878.

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