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The Victorians' Favorite Drug

A couple hundred years ago, before aspirin and drugs that dealt with specific health problems, people could seek relief from not only physical pain, but also stress and depression with laudanum. It's easy to see how, as the drug was a tincture of opium in alcohol. In the first half of the 18th century, you could get it over the counter. Laudanum gained a reputation as the answer to everything.

Laudanum became widely used throughout Victorian society as a medicine, and soon many writers, poets, and artists (along with many ordinary people) became addicted. Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and many others were all known to have used laudanum. Some managed to take it briefly while ill, but others became hopelessly dependent. Most famously, the English writer Thomas De Quincey wrote a whole book—Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821)—on his use of opium and its derivatives. The book proposed that, unlike alcohol, opium improved the creative powers, an opinion that only served to make the drug more appealing to those searching for artistic and literary inspiration. A number of other writers also played on the perceived glamor of the drug, praising its ability to enhance the imagination.

But at what price? We still have the literary output spurred by laudanum, but when addiction took hold and everything fell apart, creative activity would cease. You can read about several writers and their experiences with laudanum use at mental_floss.

(Image credit: Wellcome Images)


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