The companionship of humans has always been of great interest to me in my studies, yet I have never really had need of it. That said, there is something to be said for the concept of group friendship, as best summed up in the old battlefield maxim that states that ‘Teamwork is important; it gives the enemy someone else to shoot at.’
This is especially true in the field of medicinal science where having numerous guinea pi- er, I mean, test subjects, can prove an efficient method of gathering copious amounts of data in one go. This very concept was enthusiastically embraced by a young, virtually untrained German pharmacy apprentice by the name of Friedrich Sertürner, when in 1806, he decided rather adventurously to make it a ‘boys-night-in’ of epic proportions, by dosing both them and himself with ten-times the currently recommended amount of refined morphine – just to see what happened. Because that’s what friends do.
Pain relief in the form of opium had been around prior to 1805 when Sertürner had first made his discovery. Physicians had however been reluctant to provide raw unrefined opium to patients as it was impossible to gauge the potential effects. The potency of the dried poppy juice varied drastically, and ran the gamut from potentially easing a patient’s pain, to outright killing them. Working as a pharmacy assistant in his early twenties, Sertürner experimented over many late nights on the resin excreted by papaver somniferum, the opium poppy plant, and managed to isolate the alkaloid that alone provided the somnambulant effects.
These ground-breaking experiments heralded the ability for physicians to administer precisely the correct amount of anaesthetic to their patients, helping them to mitigate the suffering of their patients, and also to help keep the thrashing to a minimum during surgeries (a real boon, let me tell you). Sertürner called his drug Morphium after the Greek god of sleep, Morpheus, and the narcotic went on to become known as Morphine.
However, the precision of anaesthetic dosage was certainly not Sertürner’s torch to bear, it seemed. Working in his spare time, he applied the refined alkaloid to stray dogs and rats that he captured in varying quantities- and proceeded to kill almost every single one of them. Only after many, many attempts did he finally yield results – the dog in question eventually roused and was sent on it’s unsteady way (we hope).
Excitedly, he published his works but was rejected by the scientific community – his testing methods were not considered methodical, his formal training lacking, and his name was not one well known in medical circles. Undeterred he went on to test on humans – mostly himself, unaware of the highly addictive qualities of his newly discovered substance.
Which brings us neatly to his experiment that almost killed three of his friends, including himself. Luring them in no doubt with promises that he could get them totally wrecked for free (this is an assumption, but I know such a promise would work on most people), he prepared his dosages as his pals sat around wondering why they still hung around with their strange, increasingly erratic companion.
30 miligrams was initially ingested with alcohol (in its original rough form, this concoction was commonly known as laudanum) and drank with gusto by the group. Feeling happy and pleasantly buzzed – ‘We felt wonderful’ they mentioned later – Sertürner provided them each with another 60 miligrams – pushing them to almost ten times the recommended dosage. Following a phase of excessive drowsiness, they promptly passed out.
It’s almost certain that they would have perished had Sertürner not revived – perhaps from only administering a light dose to himself – and saw that his friends, now sprawled around the laboratory, had labored breathing and blue lips. As quickly as he could manage, he poured pure vinegar down all their throats, inducing vomiting and undoubtedly preventing a sleep of a more permanent variety. All participants survived albeit with nasty headaches and migraines for days afterwards.
It’s unknown whether his friends participated in further experiments (let alone talked to him ever again) but the effects were undeniable and Sertürner published again, yet once again his findings were ignored. He continued to test the alkaloid solutions on himself and it wasn’t until 1817 that his work finally gained recognition and widespread attention. He wrote in 1816:
“I flatter myself [that] my observations have explained to a considerable extent the constitution of opium, and that I have enriched chemistry with a new acid (meconic) and with a new alkaline base (morphium), a remarkable substance.”
It is argued that his work helped propel what was considered at the time as little more than alchemy, into the mainstream scientific branch of pharmaceutical chemistry. Inspired by his work, other researchers at the time isolated further alkaloids from organic substances, such as caffeine and nicotine. Sertürner himself went onto to make other discoveries in chemistry and even branching out into improvements in military hardware.
There are suggestions that Sertürner was an addict to the very substance he had isolated and refined, and combined with illness, depression and loss of mobility led to his death in 1841.
With the invention of the hypodermic needle in 1852, morphine was placed in the hands of the patient, leading to further and prevalent addiction, the first of many manufactured narcotics used by average citizen for recreational purposes. In addition to being the anaesthetic of choice across battlefields and hospitals throughout the world, it also formed the primary ingredient of a broad range of delightful patent medicines, such Mrs Winslow’s Soothing Syrup, used for babies.
All thanks to a young German fellow who stayed far too late at work. There’s a moral there somewhere…