The Evolution of Administering and Consuming Medicine

Human interactions and experimentation with drugs and medications reach back as far as our written history extends. As long as humans have existed as a species, illness, disease and pain have been there too. Ancient humans may have attributed these maladies as spiritual or godly intervention and may have viewed any attempts to heal others as supernatural or magical. Initial healers were likely held up by the community as leaders.Medicine has evolved drastically as human life has. Modern medicine is rooted primarily in science and research. The instinct toward self-preservation and empathy toward others is likely to have jumpstarted the field of medicine and introduction of drugs. “Medicine arose out of the primal sympathy of man with man; out of the desire to help those in sorrow, need and sickness.” [1]

The first drugs were likely naturally occurring substances from plants, minerals and animals. Drugs by definition are substances that have a physiological effect upon introduction to the body. Barks of certain trees were found to work on individual symptoms, people put eels and leeches on their bodies to try to heal themselves, chewing certain plants eased maladies, and people smoked spices for cures to diseases. Many modern medications were derived from a natural substance that may even have been discovered accidentally. Medication has also evolved and drugs are used for many purposes, including illegal and harmful use. Today, there are seven main categories of drugs classified by the drug recognition experts or DREs: [2]

Drugs today are classified as Schedule I, II, III, IV or IV, dependent on the drug’s potential for abuse or its medical use.[3]

From a Tree to a Tablet

Pain is an intrinsic part of the human condition. No one is immune to it, and mankind has spent centuries trying to cope with physical pain. As early as the ancient Egyptians, bark from the willow tree was documented as a pain reliever.[4] Greek physician Hippocrates, who is regarded by many as the father of medicine, also wrote that willow bark and leaves worked as a relief for aches and pains.

Flash forward to the 18th century when European researchers separated and isolated salicylic acid, the key ingredient in today’s aspirin It was largely unusable since it created such high volumes of stomach acid also. The Bayer Company in Germany was lucky to have chemist Felix Hoffman working for them in 1890, as it was he who discovered how to captivate and use acetylsalicylic acid successfully. In 1899, the powdered form was given to physicians for use, being sold over the counter in 1915 in tablet form.[5]

Aspirin’s evolution didn’t stop there, however. In 1948, Dr. Lawrence Craven, a Californian physician, started prescribing aspirin for those at risk for a heart attack. In 1982, researchers discovered why it worked, learning that aspirin was reducing clots leading to heart attacks, earning them the Nobel Prize in medicine . The CDC reports that one-third of adults are taking aspirin for these purposes today.[6] While it still works as a pain reliever, aspirin has evolved and is now overshadowed by other drugs for pain relief.

Opiates for Pain Relief

Another class of pain relievers derived from nature with an interesting evolution comes from the opium poppy plant classified in 1753 as Popaver somniferum, deriving from a Latin word loosely translated as ”sleep-inducing.”[7] Derivatives of this plant form the class of pain relievers known as narcotics and include codeine, morphine, and oxycodone.The opium poppy is thought to have originated in Asia Minor or modern-day Turkey.

How people came to know of the opium poppy’s soothing effect is not certain, although it has likely been widely known throughout history. Speculation is that originally people liked the plant because it is visually pleasing and discovered the other effects later.
Nineteenth-century botanist George Watts conjectured that “man came upon the poppy’s secret through stages of gradual awareness.”[8] The flowers were eaten in salads and made into a juice, and users traditionally either ate opium or smoked it for the pleasurable feelings it induced.

Some of the earliest medicinal uses for opium may have been in Egypt in 2000 BC as a sedative and teething remedy for children. [11] Nursing mothers are thought to have smeared opium juice on their nipples to augment breast milk to soothe crying infants. Hippocrates also likely used a form of opium juice in Greece as a narcotic between 460 and 377 BC.[12]

A Roman physician between 169 and 262, Galen, is credited with increasing the popularity of opium so much that it became almost common, being distributed by Roman shopkeepers. Arab physicians, most notably Avicenna between 980 and 1037 AD, coined opium as an anti-diarrhea medication as well as found it effective for eye problems.[13]

The 1600s to the 1800s heralded the era of opium in Western medicine. It was used to treat symptoms of tuberculosis, to relieve coughing, to promote moods, and as anesthesia for surgery in massive doses. Thomas Sydenham, an English physician who lived from 1624 to 1689, created laudanum in which opium was mixed in an alcohol solution, usually sherry, and flavored with spices like saffron.[14] This form of opium was used as a sleep aid, a painkiller, and to treat strangulated bowel obstruction. In the 18th century, a curious, young German pharmacist’s assistant named Freidrich Wilhelm Adam Serturner isolated an organic alkaloid compound from the opium poppy’s resin, publishing the results in 1806 and stating that it had 10 times the potency of regular processed opium. He called his discovery morphine after the Greek god of dreams, Morpheus. This discovery was a cornerstone in the world of narcotic pain relief. By the 1820s, morphine was widely available across Western Europe, and around the 1850s, syringes were invented and injection became the most common way to administer the drug.[15]

Today, there are many derivatives of morphine in use in the field of medicine. It is touted as one of the most effective pain relievers on the market. Another such form is codeine, which is usually taken orally as a cough suppressant. Other opiate derivatives are probably in your medicine cabinets by familiar names. By the 1870s, physicians were recognizing that in addition to its positive effects, morphine also brought severe withdrawal symptoms and in turn was devastatingly addicting.[16]

Opium’s Fall from Grace

Opium was first documented as being cultivated for growth and use in 3400 BC in lower Mesopotamia, now known as Southwest Asia, by the Sumerians.[17] Opium made its way from Europe to China, being traded up and down the Silk Road and even catalyzing the Opium Wars between China and Britain in the mid-1800s.[18] Opium was heralded for its pleasant effects and people were using it for much more than medicinal purposes. Opium dens sprung up in China, the United States, Europe, and Southeast Asia, and users were quickly heading down the path toward dependence and addiction.

Arguably one of the most dangerous derivatives of opium and the only Schedule I drug in its class is heroin. Heroin is highly addictive with 23 percent of users becoming dependant on it.[19] Heroin was actually synthesized from morphine in 1874, and the German based Bayer Company introduced it for medicinal purposes in 1898.[20] By 1903, heroin abuse was so rampant that physicians could no longer turn a blind eye to its addictive nature, and in 1924, it was deemed illegal by federal law in the United States.[21] Today, heroin is illegally smoked, inhaled, snorted, or injected, and 1.6 percent of the American population has tried it at least once.[22]

Evolution of Stimulants

For thousands of years, South Americans have been chewing the leaves of another plant, the coca plant, to enhance their mood, suppress their appetites, relieve fatigue, and aid in digestion. The coca plant grows naturally in the Andes mountain range in Columbia, Peru, and Bolivia. While natives had been chewing the coca plant since at least 3000 BC, it wasn’t until 1860 that someone by the name of Albert Neimann isolated the drug into a much more potent substance called cocaine.[23] By the 1880s, cocaine was used as an anesthetic and vasoconstriction agent, primarily in surgeries of the eyes, nose, and throat.[24] It is still used medically for some of these purposes today.

Cocaine was not always illegal or under the same cloud of darkness that it is today. Once it was thought to be used positively as a stimulant by many famous actors, painters, philosophers, athletes, and writers. It was manufactured and widely dispersed as a beverage and ointment, and it also even found in margarine. It was heralded as a cure for headaches and hay fever, and even as a cure for opium addiction.

In the late 1800s, a French chemist Angelo Mariani developed a Bordeaux red wine mixed with 6 milligrams of cocaine per ounce and sold it successfully under the name Vin Mariani.[25] This wine was widely used as a stimulant and tonic throughout Europe and America. Pope Leo XIII even gave Mariani a gold medal as he offered discounts to both the clergy and orphanages. Not to be outdone, American J.S. Pemberton from Atlanta, Georgia created his own version, calling it French Wine Coca in 1885. Upon taking the alcohol out after his county went dry in 1886, he began calling it “Coca-Cola.[26] “In 1893, an ad for Coca-Cola called it the “ideal brain tonic,” and cocaine wasn’t removed from the soda until 1903.[27]

Like heroin, cocaine’s addictive and negative effects became apparent, prompting the Harrison Narcotics Act in 1914 banning cocaine for nonmedical use.[28] Cocaine is considered a Schedule II Substance since it does still have medicinal purposes. Cocaine use seemed to drop off the radar until about 1970.

In the meantime, another type of stimulant had been synthesized and introduced in the United States. Amphetamines reared their heads in America in 1932 in form of Benzedrine, which was used as a pick-me-up, to combat melancholy, and for the treatment of hay fever.[29] The Controlled Substance Act of 1970 reduced the availability of pharmaceutical amphetamines by regulating their manufacturing, hence the reemergence of cocaine for non-medical purposes.[30]

In the 1980s, another version of cocaine appeared – crack cocaine – which is derived from the powdered form by a conversion process that makes it into a rock-like solidIt is fairly easy and inexpensive to make and gives the user an immediate high, making it highly desirable. In fact, 6.2 million Americans over the age of 12 have tried it at least once.[31] Crack cocaine is highly addictive and is typically smoked.

Other Drugs and Their Strange Beginnings

Natural remedies have been around for centuries, and some drugs not already mentioned have been created or discovered by interesting and downright weird methods. Here are a few:

  • Anti-malarial medication from Chinese tree bark [32]
  • Heart disease medication from the leaves of the purple foxglove plant [33]
  • Barbiturates were discovered from components of urine [34]
  • Nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, was long used to get high, and its anesthetic properties were discovered when a user was injured without feeling any pain Ancient Egyptians were thought to spread moldy bread on their infected wounds.[35]

Along those lines, a vital medical breakthrough came in 1928 when Alexander Fleming discovered the early version of penicillin, the first real antibiotic, in a moldy petri dish.[36] He was experimenting with the bacteria Staphylococcus and found that one of them had some white mold on it that was killing the bacteria around it. His “mold juice,” as he called it, was unstable at first but it was able to kill a wide range of bacteria. His work was furthered by Oxford University during World War II, helping develop it into the cure for many bacterial infections in modern medicine.[37]

Medicine and drugs have evolved throughout history into the complex pharmacy we have at our fingertips today. Many of these medicines were discovered accidentally and others through years of study and research. Some have taken a turn for the worse into illegal substances with highly addictive natures. Drugs and medicine will no doubt continue to change and evolve throughout human history.

Here at Foundations Recovery Network, we can help you step away from cycles of drug abuse and step into a future of healthy, balanced living. For more information, contact us today.


[1] Osler, W. (Feb. 2013). “The Evolution of Modern Medicine.“Accessed on June 24, 2014.

[2] “The Seven Drug Categories.” The International Drug Evaluation & Classification Program. Accessed June 24, 2014.

[3] “Drug Scheduling.”(n.d.) Drug Enforcement Administration. Accessed June 24, 2014.

[4] Landau, E. (Dec. 2010). “From a Tree, a ‘Miracle’ Called Aspirin.” CNN Health. Accessed June 24, 2014

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Booth, M. (1996). “Opium: A History.” The New York Times Books. Accessed June 24, 2014.

[8] Ibid

[9] Aggrawal, A. (May 1995). “Chapter Two: The Story of Opium.” Narcotic Drugs. Accessed June 24, 2014.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid

[13] “Opium.” (2014). Medical Discoveries. Accessed June 24, 2014.

[14] University of Chicago Medical Center. (May 2005). “As Morphine Turns 200, Drug That Blocks Its Side Effects Reveals New Secrets.” Science Daily. Accessed June 24, 2014.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Cannabis, Coca & Poppy; Nature’s Addictive Plants.” (n.d). Drug Enforcement Administration Museum & Visitor’s Center. Accessed June 24, 2014.

[18] Ibid.

[19] “Drug Facts: Heroin.” (April 2013). National Institute On Drug Abuse. Accessed June 24, 2014.

[20] “Cannabis, Coca & Poppy; Nature’s Addictive Plants.” (n.d). Drug Enforcement Administration Museum & Visitor’s Center. Accessed June 24, 2014.

[21] Ibid.

[22] “Drug Facts: Heroin.” (April 2013). National Institute On Drug Abuse. Accessed June 24, 2014.

[23] “Methoid…: Origin and History.” University of Arizona. Accessed June, 24, 2014.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Hellerman, C. (July 2011). “Cocaine: The Evolution of the Once ‘Wonder’ Drug.” CNN. Accessed June 24, 2014.

[26] Musto, F. (n.d.) “History: The American Experience With Stimulants.” Office of National Drug Control Policy. Accessed June 24, 2014.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Hellerman, C. (July 2011). “Cocaine: The Evolution of the Once ‘Wonder’ Drug.” CNN. Accessed June 24, 2014.

[29] Musto, F. (n.d.) “History: The American Experience With Stimulants.” Office of National Drug Control Policy. Accessed June 24, 2014.

[30] “Methoid…: Origin and History.” University of Arizona. Accessed June, 24, 2014.

[31] “Crack Cocaine Fast Facts.” (April 2003). National Drug Intelligence Center. Accessed June 24, 2014.

[32] “Historical Background to Drug Discovery.” (n.d.). University of Georgia Center for Drug Discovery. Accessed June 24, 2014.

[33] Ibid.

[34] Alamo, C.; Lopez-Munoz, F.; Ucha-Udabe, R. (Dec. 2005). “The History of Barbiturates a Century After Their Clinical Introduction.” Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment. Accessed June 24, 2014.

[35] Saied, V. (1997). “The Fascinating Story of the ‘Discovery’ of Anesthesia.” Wichita Falls Medicine Magazine. Accessed June 24, 2014.

[36] “Discovery and Development of Penicillin.” (n.d.) American Chemical Society. Accessed June 24, 2014.

[37] Ibid.

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