Author: Jola Dohrmann, Museum Blog

The Felony and the Pharmacy

Published by Francis Brazas

The Felony and the Pharmacy

Looking around the mock-pharmacy on the first floor of the museum, you’ll probably recognize a trend amongst the ingredients in many over-the-counter medicines. There are some familiar names – opium, morphine, and sometimes cocaine—often diluted in gratuitous amounts of alcohol like some bizarre remedial cocktail. It might seem backward, but there was a time when, be it in surgery or cough syrup, these substances were ubiquitous in the medical world. The impression that I see many get from this—whether it be in the museum or online when this image1 makes its rounds—is that the abusable nature of these substances was unknown to the medical world at the time. And while a lack of comprehensive knowledge of their potential dangers influenced their ubiquity, these substances often had their medical applications discovered because of their potential for abuse, not in spite of it or due to a lack of understanding about it.

Count Gregorio Calvi di Bergolo (Italian, 1904-1994)
Oil on canvas
Commissioned by Dr. Max Thorek, 1953

The most groundbreaking discovery in anesthesiology during the 19th century originated in the drug habits of the insanely rich. These four men discovered new forms of anesthesia independent of one another. William Morton, furthest right, was technically the first to demonstrate the use of ether, but his claim to be the discoverer of ether was contested by Crawford Long (second from the left) and Charles Jackson (ridiculous glasses) who had both been using ether and publishing their findings unaware of Morton. What’s so interesting about these findings is that the recreational use of laughing gas and ether preceded their uses in the operating room. Crawford Long discovered he could use ether after witnessing people at “ether frolics”—parties where the very rich would get high as a kite off of this tranquilizer—get hurt and seem totally unphased by it. Similarly, one account of Horace Wells’ discovery of nitrous oxide claims he saw it being inhaled at a sideshow, where he witnessed a carnie who had been inhaling it accidentally injure himself without complaint2 (though this is likely an urban legend, as it’s been documented he initially saw nitrous oxide used it in a legitimate medical context3). Even before his observations, nitrous oxide parties were a known pastime for the aristocrats of the early 19th century4.

Ether has largely been phased out medically except in some places where there’s a lack of adequate medical supplies, but its use as a recreational drug still continues. Though it’s largely been made obsolete by more concentrated and palatable depressants (its modern abuse is almost completely regionalized to parts of Poland and Eastern Europe), ether abuse was a much more significant problem in the latter half of the 19th and early 20th century5. Sentiments surrounding temperance during the time prohibited women from consuming alcohol, so “Hoffman’s drops,” which were a solution of roughly 3 parts alcohol to 1 part ether, would be prescribed to and habitually consumed by housewives of the late 19th century as a medical alternative to hard liquor6, similar to how barbiturates were prescribed to depressed housewives of the 1950s.

There is much to gawk at when retrospecting on antiquated medical practices, but hardly does it ever lead to any meaningful discussions. When analyzing the advancement of medicine, we must question why some substances, despite their fraught side effects and harmful nature, are medicalized while others are criminalized? Who benefits and who is punished?

The notion that medicine as an institution is not a purely objective one, and is in fact inextricably tied to politics, law and morality, is not a particularly novel nor controversial one. If you are a reader of this blog, it’s certainly old hat; medicine serves a social need as well as a physical one. In the past couple decades, there’s seemed to be a wide reconsideration of substances that have been previously deemed illicit and dangerous. If you’re commuting through the yuppier parts of Chicago, it won’t take long until you notice recently opened (or opening) Ketamine clinics as well as ads for CBD or amanita based products with remarkable frequency. This isn’t merely a regional trend — very recently Australia became the first country to institute MDMA and psilocybin therapies for the treatment of depression7. However, I don’t think the world has just come around to these reconsiderations coincidentally, I think it’s no doubt that the “type” associated with these drugs has facilitated their normalization. In the conversations I’ve had about this tendency, I’ve found many others who also speculate that aging former hippies who now sit comfortably in the upper/middle classes have brought their sentiments surrounding drug use into their later lives. Combined with their level of success and relative comfortability, they’ve shifted the sentiments of marijuana from something antisocial and criminal to something harmless consumed by anyone over the age of 60 when they were in their twenties. And no doubt medicalization spurred its legalization, it showed a public that largely beheld recreational drugs as taboo that the lips behind the spliff weren’t those of some vagrant, but those of your uncle with MS. The catalyst for normalization then seems to be empathy. When the user is humanized, people tend to approach the substance with open mindedness. Of course, this process all depends on who in society is humanized and who isn’t.

Medicalization is a double edged sword. Though the proliferation of marijuana as a medical and recreational product has been beneficial in both helping to ease the pain of patients and in pushing against its legacy of criminalization, other substances have proven to be incredibly harmful. Long before opium could be bought in over the counter medicine at a pharmacy, it had been abused more widely than any drug to come before or after. The English famously used opium in their war strategy against China during the opium wars. Their intent was to get millions dependent on it so they could profit from the sale of opium8, an eerily similar strategy used by Purdue Pharma and the Sackler Family in the United States. 

Despite such a long history of abuse, pharmaceutical companies have pushed addictive opioids for decades with full knowledge of their destructive capabilities. In 2020 alone, over 68 thousand people died of an opioid overdose9. Politics, law, morality and especially capital, which influences them in a perpetual feedback loop, all determine how medicine operates, and consequently what gets used in treatments. It’s why, even in the 21st century, someone selling or possessing weed can be locked up for decades10 while pharmaceutical families like the Sacklers can earn billions from knowingly killing hundreds of thousands11.

We tend to think of our modern age as the most enlightened one. That because of the boundless information at our disposal and the incorruptible objectivity of contemporary science we can finally be rid of greed, incompetence and malfeasance in the industries that are so essential to our longevity and livelihoods. Enlightenment has not provided a constant, exponential moral progression, but one that resembles more closely a seismograph in an unsteady ocean. Though we’ve developed sophisticated technologies capable of extending our self preservation and turning the work of hundreds of hours into minutes, we are not any more humane for it. The reality which we remain in is one which has such potential for cruelty, and unless those making good use of theirs are held accountable—it always will be.

Notes and Bibliography

  1. Upadhyay, Toyoja. “When Cocaine, Chloroform and Heroin Were Used as Common Medicinal Remedies.” Mumbai Mirror, 20 May 2021, 
  2. “The History of Horace Wells.” The History of Horace Wells, Accessed 7 Aug. 2023. 
  3. Rajesh P. Haridas; Horace Wells’ Demonstration of Nitrous Oxide in Boston. Anesthesiology 2013; 119:1014–1022 doi:
  4. Mingren, Wu. “Laughing Gas Parties Were a Big Hit with 19th Century Society.” Ancient Origins Reconstructing the Story of Humanity’s Past, 12 Mar. 2019,
  5. Krenz S, Zimmermann G, Kolly S, Zullino DF. Ether: a forgotten addiction. Addiction. 2003 Aug;98(8):1167-8. doi: 10.1046/j.1360-0443.2003.00439.x. PMID: 12873252,
  6. Erowid. “Hoffman’s Drops.” Erowid Ether Vaults : Hoffmann’s Drops, Oct. 2000, 
  7. Nunn, Gary. “MDMA: Australia Begins World-First Psychedelic Therapy.” BBC News, 30 June 2023, 
  8. “Opium War.” National Army Museum,,for%20the%20entire%20tea%20trade. Accessed 3 July 2023. 
  9. “Death Rate Maps & Graphs.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2 June 2022, 
  10. “John Knock: Two Life Sentences for Marijuana.” FAMM, 3 Feb. 2021, 
  11. Keefe, Patrick Radden. “The Sackler Family’s Plan to Keep Its Billions.” The New Yorker, 4 Oct. 2020, 

Francis Brazas was a 2023 Summer Youth Employee in the Arts at the IMSS, responsible for maintaining accurate and consistent object labels as well as shades of paint on the wall. They have a curiosity surrounding the historical development of health in medicine in society and are currently pursuing a bachelor’s in history at Bard College. They write and produce songs in their band Deerest Friends in their spare time.