Pipe dreams (from the Spring 2014 Newsletter)

Treatise on Opium

Opium “does more honour to medicine to any other remedy whatever.” Charles Alston, professor of Botany and Materia Medica at Edinburgh University, wrote this statement in a 1742 article. Alston was the first person in England to grow poppies for his experiments and lauded in print all the beneficial effects of the flower. He did not, however, mention its addictive properties. A fellow Edinbourgeois, the surgeon Charles Young wrote one of the first treatises on opium partly in response to Alston’s uncritical praise of the drug. In the preface to his 1743 Treatise on Opium, Young said that “opium is a poison by which great numbers are daily destroyed.” Although Young was correct in his mention of opiate addiction, it didn’t stop him from using it or prescribing it to treat coughing, diarrhea, toothache, prolapsed hemorrhoids, and many other ailments. Most particularly, he advocated opium to alleviate “lowness of Spirits” and melancholia. Indeed so.  

Young was an outstanding surgeon during the period of the Scottish Enlightenment.  He was the only surgeon elected to the prestigious and very intellectual Ranken Club. He did not have a medical degree, but that was not unusual at the time. His medical practice and his philosophy were based in empiricism, which should be expected of a contemporary of David Hume. This empirical viewpoint is illustrated in the title of the book, where Young says his study is “founded Upon Practical Observations.”  

The Sealy Library recently acquired Young’s important treatise on a drug used and abused for centuries. John Jay is one of three libraries in New York City to own this book, and the only non-medical library.  Once again, we must emphasize the importance of such historical works to the study of our discipline. 

Larry E. Sullivan, Chief Librarian

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