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Laudanum Bottles
mid-19th century

picture of laudanum bottles

In post-mediaeval Europe, desperate patients would sometimes consume tincture of opium before surgery. But the heroic doses of alcohol and opium needed to induce stupor also cause severe respiratory depression. The patient might die.

Taken in more modest but still sizeable doses, laudanum was popular a recreational drug. It was also habit-forming. Many different formulations of laudanum were available. The most famous recipe, offered by the "Shakespeare of Medicine", Thomas Sydenham (1624-89) in his work on dysentery (1669), contained one pound of sherry wine, two ounces of opium, one ounce of saffron, one ounce of powder of cinnamon, and one ounce of powder of cloves.

In the 18th and 19th century, a vast multitude of unregulated opiate-based tinctures were developed for the popular market. Diseases were traditionally conceived in terms of bundles of overt symptoms. Since opiates relieved or temporarily abolished many of these symptoms, laudanum and other pain-killers were believed to have therapeutic as well as analgesic properties.


Ether Frolics
Utopian Surgery
Refs and Further Reading
Anaesthesia and Anaesthetics