The Opium Poppy FAQ

FAQ :: Advanced Usage :: What is Laudanum?

Laudenum aka Tinctura Thebaica was first popularized, or rather the dangers inherent in it's usage were first brought to public attention, in Thomas De Quincy's scandelous 'Confessions of an English Opium Eater' (1821), the 'Trainspotting' of it's day. In England at that stage in history opium and it's derivatives were the most commonly used form of painkiller, more readily available than aspirin and prescribed for everything from backache to infant teething trouble (!) Many respectable people thought nothing of using the substance on a frequent basis; given the private nature of the Victorian lifestyle it is impossible to judge how many individuals developed some form of dependancy ( there are obvious paralells to the prescribed tranquilizers like valium which are dispensed freely nowadays). Most people would have known opium in the form of laudenum, or paragoric (a very similar substance), a liquid preparation available from chemists which was administered orally. Tinctures of psychoactive drugs were pretty easy to come by; Queen Victoria herself was notably given tincture of cannibus to alleviate menstrual cramps.

This material below this notice is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "Laudanum".

Laudanum is an opium tincture, sometimes sweetened with sugar and also called wine of opium.

In the 16th century, a Swiss physician named Paracelsus (1493–1541) experimented with the medical value of opium. He decided that its medical (analgesic) value was of such magnitude that he called it Laudanum, from the Latin laudare, to praise, or from labdanum, the term for a plant extract. He did not know of its addictive properties.

In the 19th century, laudanum was used in many patent medicines to "relieve pain... to produce sleep... to allay irritation... to check excessive secretions... to support the system... [and] as a sudorific". The limited pharmacopoeia of the day meant that opium derivatives were among the most efficacious of available treatments, and so laudanum was widely prescribed for ailments from colds to meningitis to cardiac diseases, in both adults and children.

The Romantic and Victorian eras were marked by the widespread use of laudanum in England, Europe, and the United States. Initially a working class drug, laudanum was cheaper than a bottle of gin or wine, because it was treated as a medication for legal purposes and not taxed as an alcoholic beverage. Notable addicted literary figures include: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who miserably battled his addiction for much of his adult life; Thomas de Quincey; Lord Byron; Percy Bysshe Shelley, who suffered raging laudanum-induced hallucinations; Charles Dickens; Lewis Carroll; and Charles Baudelaire. There were also political figures (Wilberforce, Meriwether Lewis) who used the drug.

Innumerable Victorian women were prescribed the drug for relief of menstrual cramps and vague aches and used it to achieve the pallid complexion associated with tuberculosis (frailty and paleness were prized in females at the time). Nurses spoon-fed laudanum to infants, many of whom died from overdoses.

The character of Oscar Hopkins in Peter Carey's novel Oscar and Lucinda (1988) uses laudanum (initially under duress) to dull his hydrophobia during his expedition from Sydney. Additionally, Mary Shelly's character Victor Frankenstein (1818/1831) uses laudanum to help him sleep after the death of his friend, Henry Clerval.

Laudanum also features in historical fiction. In the Aubrey–Maturin series of novels (which starts with Master and Commander), the ship's surgeon, Stephen Maturin, both uses the drug professionally and battles his own addiction to it.

Laudanum is still available by prescription in the United States. Laudanum is classified as a Schedule II drug under the Controlled Substances Act. Its most common formulation is known as 'deodorized tincture of opium,' and is manufactured in the United States by Ranbaxy Pharmaceuticals. The only medically-approved uses for laudanum in the United States are for treating diarrhea and pain. Laudanum (deodorized opium tincture) contains the equivalent of 10 milligrams of morphine per milliliter. By contrast, laudanum's weaker cousin, paregoric, is 1/25th the strength of laudanum, containing only 0.4 milligrams of morphine per milliliter.

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