Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library

Opium: Reality's Dark Dream

Copyright Date: 2012
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 352
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Opium and its derivatives morphine and heroin have destroyed, corrupted, and killed individuals, families, communities, and even whole nations. And yet, for most of its long history, opium has also been humanity's most effective means of alleviating physical and mental pain. This extraordinary book encompasses the entire history of the world's most fascinating drug, from the first evidence of poppy cultivation by stone-age man to the present-day opium trade in Afghanistan. Dr. Thomas Dormandy tells the story with verve and insight, uncovering the strange power of opiates to motivate major conflicts yet also inspire great art and medical breakthroughs, to trigger the rise of global criminal networks yet also revolutionize attitudes toward well-being.

    Opium: Reality's Dark Dreamtraverses the globe and the centuries, exploring opium's role in colonialism, the Chinese Opium Wars, laudanum-inspired sublime Romantic poetry, American "Yellow Peril" fears, the rise of the Mafia and the black market, 1960s counterculture, and more. Dr. Dormandy also recounts exotic or sad stories of individual addiction. Throughout the book the author emphasizes opium's complex, valuable relationship with developments in medicine, health, and disease, highlighting the perplexing dual nature of the drug as both the cause and relief of great suffering in widely diverse civilizations.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18365-8
    Subjects: History, Health Sciences

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-4)

    Sir William Osler called it ‘God’s own medicine’. His friend, the eminent surgeon and addict William Stewart Halsted, declared it to be the vilest curse on society. Conflicting opinions about a drug are common; but such extremes could refer only to one.

    Age and survival alone make opium unique. Fermented grape juice may be older; but it is the emergence of opium which is the more remarkable. A potpourri of rotting fruit and a few hours of sunshine are all that are necessary to start alcoholic fermentation. Prehistoric man or woman may have recoiled from their first sip but the...


    • CHAPTER 1 Petrified buns
      (pp. 7-11)

      The Alpine winder of 1854 caused much hardship. Children lost their ears and noses to frostbite and the frail and elderly died. But the cold also provided the strong and industrious with exceptional opportunities. Little steamers had started to criss-cross Lake Zurich during the previous summer; and the low water level now created the right conditions for building landing platforms. Such a facility would do wonders for the tourist trade of the small lakeside community of Meilen. But almost at once the diggers ran into difficulties. Jutting from the bottom of the lake were a dozen almost immovable wooden poles....

    • CHAPTER 2 The magical seepage
      (pp. 12-16)

      To the second question there is still no certain answer. Some botanists believe that the opium-yielding white poppy evolved naturally, the result of mutations in response to quirks of climate and geography. But others have suggested thatPapaver somniferumwas the result of deliberate selection by generations of prehistoric cultivators. That may sound far-fetched but would not be unique. Though spread over millennia, the cumulative ingenuity of these pre-human plantsmen equalled anything their modern descendants have achieved.

      Poppies are a bounteous tribe: no less than 28 genera and over 280 species flourish in the temperate and subtropical zones of the...

    • CHAPTER 3 A gift of the gods
      (pp. 17-24)

      Throughout the classical world – roughly twelve hundred years from Homer in about 800 bc to the fall of the Western Roman Empire in ad 456 – the poppy and its juice were cherished as gifts of the gods. Homer relates the visit of Telemachus, son of Ulysses, to King Menelaus of Sparta. It is not a happy occasion. Remembrance of the sons, brothers, fathers and friends the assembled company had lost under the walls of Troy makes them dejected. Many still suffer from the after-effects of the privations they had endured themselves. Helen, beautiful daughter of Zeus, takes pity...

    • CHAPTER 4 Rival brews
      (pp. 25-28)

      Pedanius Dioscorides was born in Anazarba in Cilicia (today’s south-east Turkey) and served for ten years as a surgeon in Nero’s army. The peripatetic life let him indulge his passion for collecting plants, both exotic and ordinary, and his martial exploits earned him a plot of land in Macedonia. His profession also fostered a brisk literary style which is not without a certain parade-ground charm. In and after about ad 80 he compiled a six-volume pharmacopoeia in Greek –De materia medicain the more widely read Latin translation – which remained the prescriber’s bible for a thousand years.¹ In...

    • CHAPTER 5 Affyon
      (pp. 29-37)

      The rise of islam remains without parallel. Within ten years of the flight of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina (ad 622 in the Christian calendar; year ah 1 in Islamic chronology) his followers had conquered the Arab Peninsula; and within a hundred years they were masters of a large part of the Byzantine Empire in Asia, Persia, Egypt, North Africa and most of today’s Spain and Portugal. In the East under the Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid, a contemporary of Charlemagne, Baghdad became the most populous and most beautiful city in the world.¹ It also became the centre of a...

    • CHAPTER 6 The sleepy sponge
      (pp. 38-44)

      While islam waxed in glory, Western civilisation floundered and almost sank. Even in the Neolithic Age poppy cultivation required a degree of social stability. For centuries in Europe there was none. Intoxication was of course common: for long periods in many parts of the continent drunkenness was probably the customary state of humanity. But news of a gentler and yet more exciting intoxicant was brought to the West – like so much else, good and bad – by the Crusaders.

      The first of what were to be extraordinary migrations was triggered by the religious upsurge at the end of the...

    • CHAPTER 7 Greater than Celsus?
      (pp. 45-52)

      Opium has always been divisive; and the man who launched its incarnation under the famous nameLaudanumremains appropriately controversial.¹ To his devotees he is a maligned prophet. To his detractors his very name, Philippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus von HohenheimsiveParacelsus, spells buffoon. This particular jibe is unjust. He was the only son of Wilhelm von Hohenheim, a Swabian doctor of the House of Bombast, the word derived from the prosaicBaumast(building mast), not from bombastic; Theophrastus was in honour of Tyrtamus Theophrastus of Lesbos, a respectable follower of Aristotle; Aureolus was a pet name given to him...

    • CHAPTER 8 The tincture and the powder
      (pp. 53-61)

      In the last of the series of engravings entitledMarriage A-la-ModeHogarth depicted the suicide of a foolish young countess. The date was 1745 and the story had begun six years earlier with her happy engagement to the scatterbrained but amiable heir to the Earl of Squander. By the time of the closing scene all the riches shown or hinted at in earlier images – the vast estate, the stately home, the family silver, the army of servants and parasitic hangers-on – had been lost. But worse: the young woman had just learnt that her lover, Counsellor Silvertongue, had been...

    • CHAPTER 9 On the banks of the Ganges
      (pp. 62-68)

      The relationship between supply and demand is complex and in the case of opium has often been impossible to unravel. Was the drug suddenly available in Europe because the discoveries of men like Sydenham and Dover had created a demand? Or did the influx of affordable opium account for the success of their discoveries? Whatever the sequence, increasing opium consumption in the West coincided with the transformation of the pattern of poppy cultivation in far-flung corners of the world.

      For centuries in India the processing of the home-grown poppy had been a domestic chore, usually left (like other domestic and...

    • CHAPTER 10 The Turkish connection
      (pp. 69-75)

      As in india, the peasants of the Anatolian Plateau had grown the poppy for home consumption for centuries. Who discovered the region’s wider potential is uncertain; but given the growing demand for opium in the West, the development was inevitable. The soil and the dry temperate climate were ideal; and, no less auspiciously, the inhabitants were poor, hardy and ignorant. The area was neither too sparsely populated nor overcrowded. Around 1760 Greek, Turkish and Armenian traders began to make their way to the villages. To the local peasantry the sums they offered verged on the supernatural. Though this was the...

    • CHAPTER 11 Romantic opium
      (pp. 76-84)

      It was a rebellion against both the past and the future. Romantic Man and Romantic Woman dismissed the old ideals of balance and moderation. They espoused freedom, fancy and fantasy. They exalted love, hatred and other irrational urges. They saw themselves as liberating the human soul, their own and mankind’s. But they also recoiled from the ugliness rising around them. Of course ugliness had always existed and had to be accepted; but the new horrors – the belching chimneys, the teeming slums – were all man-made. Feudal lords in the Middle Ages lived more interesting but not significantly more comfortable...

    • CHAPTER 12 The pleasure dome of Xanadu
      (pp. 85-90)

      On 11 april 1816 Dr James Gillman, a general practitioner in the hilltop village of Highgate some ten miles north of London, received a letter from a colleague, Dr Joseph Adams of Hatton Garden.

      A very learned, but in one respect unfortunate gentleman, has applied to me on a singular occasion. He has been for several years in the habit of taking large quantities of opium. For some time he has been in vain endeavouring to break himself off it . . . His friends are not firm enough from a dread lest he should suffer by suddenly leaving it...

    • CHAPTER 13 The opium eaters
      (pp. 91-97)

      Coleridge’s ‘bondage’ was a private affair, known only to a small circle of friends. Thomas de Quincey’s addiction was as public as he could make it. HisConfessions of an English Opium Eater(1822) became a best-seller and made him famous, in the United States as well as in Europe, astheaccredited face of Romantic opium dependence. The genre in which he chose to bare his soul (and most of his bodily functions) was ancient. To Christians St Augustine’s chronicle of his conversion from profligate youth to searching Christian is the greatest autobiography ever written.¹ It was in his...

    • CHAPTER 14 The people
      (pp. 98-103)

      During the early decades of the nineteenth century agricultural labourers, factory workers, miners, soldiers, sailors, pimps, prostitutes and their men- and women-folk still sought oblivion in gin, rum or home-distilled nameless spirits. By the mid-century opium had permeated all layers of society: it was consumed more widely than aspirin, paracetamol and all other over-the-counter analgesics put together are today. Between 1825 and 1850 imports to Britain rose from 23,300 kilos to 138,000 kilos a year. About a third of this was re-exported, mainly to the United States; but the annual increase in home consumption was still 4–8 per cent....

    • CHAPTER 15 A salve for all ailments
      (pp. 104-112)

      Despite the increasing recreational use of the drug, whether among exhausted prostitutes in the purlieus of Vienna’s Stefansdom or working-class mums in the slums of Sheffield, in most countries poppy juice was still a medicine, indeed a salve for all ailments. What these were varied from country to country, from region to region and from class to class. In Britain coughs, colds and chestiness were the most common indications because they were the most common complaints. But gout and rheumatism remedies too contained opium as well as colchicum. In the 1840s Dr Rayner of Stockport prescribed opiate eye-drops for sleeplessness...


    • CHAPTER 16 The shape of dreams
      (pp. 115-122)

      Changing times have their favourite cutting-edge sciences. Atomic physics attracted the scientific avant-garde in the 1930s. Microbiology was the dazzling field for new discoveries in the chemistry exercised the most original minds at the turn of the nineteenth century.¹ The discovery of the alkaloids of opium was one of their achievements.

      The concept of an ‘active principle’ in opium was ancient but for centuries its isolation was regarded as a pipe dream. A few English Paracelsians tinkered with the material; none seriously tried to break the conceptual mould. The revolution in chemistry – Scheele in Sweden, Lavoisier in France,...

    • CHAPTER 17 The most wicked of wars
      (pp. 123-150)

      Few have seriously questioned Mr Gladstone’s judgement of 1840 that

      a war more wicked in its origin, a war more calculated in its progress to cover this country with a permanent disgrace, I do not know and have not read of . . . I am in dread of the judgement of God upon England for our national iniquity towards China.¹

      He was talking of the opium wars between England and China – it could not have been any other – and he knew what he was talking about. He had just recovered from a nervous breakdown after a futile...

    • CHAPTER 18 The Yellow Peril
      (pp. 151-160)

      The london timeswas almost – but only almost – right. The fighting in China had ended and most newspaper readers felt that the squabble over opium, probably a triumph but just possibly a minor blemish on the task of building a great and benign empire, was now best forgotten. And yet, whatever the newspapers wrote, the opium wars were far from over: their long-term consequences would be as fraught as had been the armed conflicts and they would last longer.

      This was not immediately apparent. So far as Britain was concerned, the objectives of the fighting had been achieved....

    • CHAPTER 19 Doctors rule
      (pp. 161-174)

      Round dates rarely coincide with significant historical events, but 1850 marks a convenient divide. The defeat of the revolutions of 1848–49 demonstrated the futility of the ‘divine discontents’ of the Romantics.¹ Romantic notions lingered on in literature, music and the arts –Les Miserablesand theRingwere still to come – but whatever relevance they had ever had to everyday life had evaporated. What was left to guide ordinary men and women through the next half-century was science, displaying unbounded confidence, replacing woolly conceits like human brotherhood, liberty, the soul and even the victory of the proletariat.² At...

    • CHAPTER 20 American voices
      (pp. 175-185)

      After the starry-eyed first decades of the nineteenth century the United States developed into the fastest growing market for opium and opiates. Even during the years before the Civil War New Englanders imported enough of the drug – about 16,000 kilos in 1840 – for the business to come to the attention of the United States Customs. Customs slapped a duty on the merchandise, raising the price from less than $1 to $2.80 per kilo, a trend that was to continue. Despite such unpopular impositions, imports rose between 1840 and 1850 to 44,000 kilos a year. In addition to old-fashioned...

    • CHAPTER 21 Nervous waste
      (pp. 186-192)

      As the nineteenth century was drawing to a close, it seemed that it was America’s youth which was falling victim to drugs. Anxiety was stoked by ignorance. The term ‘American disease’ was cropping up in the newspapers. What was it? An epidemic? Why had it suddenly taken a grip? Dr George M. Beard called itneurasthenia– literally, nervous waste – and claimed to know most of the answers.

      The son of a Connecticut minister, Beard graduated from Yale in 1862 at the age of twenty-three and by then had firmly decided on his future career. He was to devote...

    • CHAPTER 22 A heroic substance
      (pp. 193-199)

      The story begins in London at St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, where in 1874 Dr C.R. Alder Wright, a chemist and future Fellow of the Royal Society, was trying to find a derivative of morphine which might be effective but not habit-forming. A fairly obvious possibility was to try a chemical reaction known as acetylation, the transfer of an acetyl group, -CH2-COOH, or several acetyl groups, from acetic anhydride, a reactive form of acetic acid or vinegar, to the compound to be modified. The experiment resulted in a greyish powder which Alder Wright rightly assumed to be diacetylmorphine. He fed it...

    • CHAPTER 23 The birth of a crusade
      (pp. 200-211)

      The campaign – but crusade may be the more appropriate term – to suppress all drugs of addiction everywhere was the first in which the United States chose to lead the world. Once again international politics and opium interlocked. After triumphantly concluding the Spanish–American War – the entire Spanish Pacific fleet was sunk in Manila Bay by Commodore George Dewey on 1 May 1898 – the United States found herself to the amazement of many an imperial power. To some this was profoundly unwelcome. Imperial conquests were not envisaged by the Founding Fathers. But the consequences of victory are...

    • CHAPTER 24 War and Peace (of sorts)
      (pp. 212-220)

      But this is leaving behind historic events elsewhere. Two fatal shots by a consumptive Serbian student at an Austrian archduke and his wife on 28 July 1914 led to a war that, with uneasy intervals between periods of wholesale killing, would occupy thirty-one years of the twentieth century.¹ On the outbreak of hostilities on 3 September 1914 negotiators in The Hague dispersed amid lamentations but promised to reassemble next spring when this regrettablebetisewould be over. In the meantime existing provisions relating to opium would have to be shelved. Neither the need for opiates nor the practical implications of...

    • CHAPTER 25 Victims and survivors
      (pp. 221-231)

      The years of hyperinflation that hit the Weimar Republic in Germany after the war, the threat of impossible reparations and the occupation of the country’s industrial heartland now tend to be remembered for theirGalgenhumor. It was the golden age of the cabaret and of sexual emancipation, of surreal films and of anything goes. In the world of the super-rich champagne flowed andder himmlische Pravazhad become a fashion accessory. Morphine and heroin were not cheap but for dollars everything was affordable. To ordinary folk uninterested in cabarets and exotic sex it was less fun. Their world had collapsed,...

    • CHAPTER 26 Unholy alliances
      (pp. 232-239)

      Nobody who has experienced the Second World War, whether carrying arms or as a civilian (and civilians suffered much the heavier losses for the first time since the Thirty Years War), would ever doubt that the suffering would have been infinitely greater without morphine and heroin. In Hans Fallada’s words, ‘morphine was the only ministering angel who, without ideology or war aims, served mankind impartially in its madness’. The drugs were available in most armies (and in the few prisoner-of-war camps visited by the International Red Cross) and supplies ran out only under exceptional circumstances. When they did, the consequences...

    • CHAPTER 27 Junkies
      (pp. 240-247)

      The term ‘junky’ in its dope sense originated in New York City in the early 1920s. For much longer it had meant a junk-man or rag-and-bone man who walked the streets with his cart and cat buying and selling scrap metal, wood and clothing. Aware that garbage sometimes contained saleable items he occasionally rummaged through bins. So did a generation of young people, mostly poor, white and male, who picked through the city dumps to find among the junk something that would pay for their next fix. Hence junkies. The first generation were also dubbed the heroin boys and described...

    • CHAPTER 28 Guardians of the law
      (pp. 248-252)

      Poised to pounce on junkies, flower children, users, habitues, addicts and their suppliers is the vast, and still expanding, army of the national and international anti-narcotics law enforcement agencies. Their model and parent body, the Federal Narcotics Control Board of the United States, dates back to 1928 and was the outcome of the murder of a top New York gangster Arnold Rothstein. Shot but not killed outright, he was questioned about his murderer. He remained shtum. ‘But don’t you want your murderer caught, Mr Rothstein?’ the detective pleaded. ‘Yes. But you stick to your job, policeman, and I stick to...

    • CHAPTER 29 Zero tolerance
      (pp. 253-259)

      In 1975 District Judge Whitman Knapp was asked to study explosive allegations made by a dismissed police officer. In his report the judge concluded that ‘attempts so far to legislate drug addiction out of existence seem to have resulted inmoreaddiction,morebusiness for organised crime andmoreevidence pointing to police corruption’.

      Corruption has grown in recent years to the point where high-ranking police officers acknowledge it to be the most serious problem facing the Department. In the course of our investigation we became familiar with . . . practices including:–

      Keeping money and/or drugs narcotics confiscated at...

    • CHAPTER 30 God’s own medicine
      (pp. 260-268)

      The tribulations of governments and the noxious trade always represented only one side of the opium story. As the second half of the twentieth century advanced developments on the other side were no less momentous.

      Even birds and animals look after their wounded and dying – some do so with extraordinary devotion – and special institutions dedicated to terminally ill humans have existed since medical records began. In modern times Mme Jeanne Garnier, a wealthy and devout widow of Lyon, is sometimes remembered as the pioneer. Having lost her two sons to a slowly disabling and painful neurological ailment, in...

    • CHAPTER 31 Treatments and cures
      (pp. 269-275)

      One day – but it would be a bold person who predicted when. Failure to take advantage of advances in the basic sciences has never been for want of trying. During the early years of the twentieth century the antitoxin hypothesis found an enthusiastic following. The idea evolved from the great discoveries of the immune response. In healthy organisms bacterial toxins trigger the elaboration of highly specific antitoxins; and, though the molecular mechanism is still imperfectly understood, in some previously fatal diseases – among them rabies and diphtheria – antitoxins proved triumphantly successful in treatment. Such advances sometimes prompt purely...

    • CHAPTER 32 Life and death of a drug lord
      (pp. 276-282)

      The drug literature of the past fifty years is littered with geometrical shapes – triangles, crescents and most recently a square – usually described as golden.¹ The shapes refer to areas on the map which have successively supplied the world with its illicit drugs. The ‘golden’ presumably hints at the profits of a few criminals living thousands of miles away.² For most ordinary inhabitants of the shapes the decades have been anything but golden.

      Chronologically the Triangle rose to fame first, about half a million square miles of South East Asia, the mountainous and beautiful northern parts of Myanmar (Burma),...

    • CHAPTER 33 The making of a modern narco-state
      (pp. 283-289)

      Unlike the golden Triangle, the area of Central Asia known as the Golden Crescent has been home to the poppy for centuries. Straddling the Great Silk Road between China and the Mediterranean the region has always sent some of its produce to the West; but in global terms the trade has been small. The last League of Nations narcotics survey reported that Afghanistan at the heart of the Crescent contributed less than 2 per cent to the world’s illicit heroin.¹ What has made it a modern narco-state in the first decade of the twenty-first century is politics.

      For a century...

    • CHAPTER 34 New trails: old tribulations
      (pp. 290-297)

      Whatever the outcome of the war in Afghanistan, it will not make heroin disappear. In 1995, twenty years after Richard Nixon declared a ‘War on Drugs’, Thomas Constantine, head of the United States Drug Enforcement Administration, admitted to Congress that the ‘availability and purity of . . . heroin is at an all-time high’.¹ And the trend is maintained. Rough estimates put the number of heavily dependent addicts worldwide at 16–20 million and the number of occasional and experimental users at five times as many. Even when the drug is not hitting the headlines in one country it is...

  8. Epilogue
    (pp. 298-299)

    It would be pleasant to end this narrative on an upbeat note. The image of the pipe-smoking, bushy-bearded Afghan farmer surveying his field of poppies at nightfall, knowing that it will save him and his family from starvation is real. The young poppy bursting into bloom remains an enchantment. The relief provided by opiates to suffering all around the world is an incalculable blessing. The praise heaped on the poppy by poets, musicians and writers of the past has been much dwelt on in the present book. But such an ending would border on the fraudulent. Opium and its derivatives...

  9. Acknowledgements
    (pp. 300-301)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 302-325)
  11. Selected Annotated Bibliography
    (pp. 326-348)
  12. Index
    (pp. 349-366)