Fun Fact: What Alcohol-infused Drug Was Used to Treat Plague Victims in the 1600s?

Paracelsus referred to the drug as the “stone of immortality,” which may have been the impetus for his fine-tuning it further. Later, Thomas Sydenham created his own version in the 1600s with the important addition of alcohol.

Question: What alcohol-infused drug was used to treat plague victims in the 1600s?

Answer: Laudanum

Paracelsus, born Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim, was a Swiss physician and philosopher who was credited as a pioneer of the medical revolution of the Renaissance and a father of toxicology.1

Paracelsus can also be credited for opium really taking off in the 15th century. The physician referred to the drug as the “stone of immortality,” which may have been the impetus for his fine-tuning it to develop laudanum.1

Laudanum, coming from laudare in Latin, which means “to praise,” was aptly named by Paracelsus in light of his strong feelings toward the drug. Paracelsus explained that, in his opinion, laudanum was “superior to all other heroic remedies.”1

A contemporary of Paracelsus, Johannes Oporinus, was also acquainted with Paracelsus’ feelings toward laudanum.1

“He had pills which he called laudanum which looked like pieces of mouse shit,” Oporinus wrote. “He boasted he could, with these pills, wake up the dead.”1

These pills were, according to records, 25% opium. However, they were also noted by Paracelsus to be made of some other ingredients, including mummy, bezoar stone from a cow’s digestive tract, henbane (a sedative and hallucinogenic plant), amber, crushed coral and pearls, musk, oils, bone from the heart of a stag, and unicorn horn (which was most likely rhinoceros or narwhal horn). Occasionally, Paracelsus noted, he also included frog spawn, orange juice, and some other spices.1

Following the success of laudanum at Paracelsus’ hands, Thomas Sydenham created his own version in the 1600s with an important addition: alcohol. Since the bubonic plague was raging at the time, he recommended his alcohol-infused laudanum as a treatment for plague victims.1

Although laudanum was not found to be a cure for the plague, it did notably find success as an intoxicant and numbing agent, which was a welcome aid for plague victims at the time.1

Following its success in the 1600s, alcohol-infused laudanum remained a more popular alternative to opium alone in the West than it did in the East, where opium wars raged throughout the 19th century. At this time in the East, opium dens in which one could smoke the drug were quite the hit, while products, such as laudanum, touted by physicians and containing both opium and alcohol, were more popular in the West.1

During the 19th century, laudanum was not only easily available in Europe, but also affordable. Published in 1821, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, written by Thomas De Quincy, discussed the joy that was his discovery of laudanum after it was prescribed to him to treat a toothache.1,2

“Here was a panacea—a φαρµακον νήπεvθες [soothing drug] for all human woes. Here was the secret of happiness—about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages—at once discovered: happiness might now be bought for a penny and carried in the waistcoat pocket; portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint bottle; and peace of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail coach,” De Quincy wrote.2

However, De Quincy was aware of the pain that opium brought him, despite his proclaimed alignment with “the doctrine of the true church on the subject of opium, of which church I acknowledge myself to be the only member.”2

He also wrote, “I seemed every night to descend…into chasms and sunless abysses…amounting at last to utter darkness, as of some suicidal despondency.”1

REFERENCES

  • Kang L, Pedersen N. Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. New York, NY: Workman Publishing; 2017.
  • De Quincy T. Helping Himself. Lapham’s Quarterly. 1804. laphamsquarterly.org/medicine/helping-himself. Accessed December 10, 2020.