Sunday, 17 October 2010

Oscar Wilde and Heroin

“Will he be all right?” asked Gabrielle, as Oscar helped her up into our waiting carriage.
Oscar laughed. “I think the heroin will see him through.”
I was reading Gyles Brandreth’s book, “Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man’s Smile” (a rip-roaring page turner in which Oscar Wilde solves some dastardly crimes) when I read the words quoted above. Brandreth is normally very good at period details but one particular detail struck me as a bit fishy - namely Oscar’s reference to heroin.

Given the fact that the book contains numerous references to cocaine, opium and tincture of laudanum, why not heroin? The answer is simple: the events of the book are set in 1883 but the name ‘heroin’ was not used until 1898 (see, therefore Brandreth’s use of the name ‘heroin’ at that period is anachronistic.

The history of heroin turns out to be quite interesting. Initially, it was marketed by the German pharmaceutical company, Bayer, as a cough medicine. The chemical name of the drug is diacetylmorphine but Bayer decided to give it the catchier name, ‘heroin’, to emphasise its heroic medicinal qualities . Towards the end of the 19th Century, morphine was widely used to treat coughs, and heroin was thought to be a safer alternative (being, in theory, less addictive than morphine). Initially the biggest market for heroin was the USA where it was used in many popular cough medicines . But it soon became apparent that heroin was becoming a favourite tipple of many people without coughs - and its claim to be non-addictive was thrown into considerable doubt.

As a side-note, while it may seem odd that Bayer were so wrong in their belief that heroin would prove to be a safe ‘wonder cure’, they were pretty much spot-on with another drug which they were promoting at the same time. This was a drug called acetylsalicylic acid for which Bayer coined the name, Aspirin.

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