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Doctors on Cocaine: 2 Early Cases

August 15, 2011 by Reader's Connection

I sneered at all the poor mortals condemned to live in the valley of tears while I, carried on the wings of two leaves of coca, went flying through the spaces of 77,438 worlds, each more splendid than the one before.

An Anatomy of AddictionDoes that sound inviting? The year was 1859, and the Italian neurologist Paolo Mantegazza had returned from a trip to Peru. The coca leaves so revered by South American Indians were becoming the rage in Europe and the US. Cure-all drinks with cocaine bases were flooding the market, most memorably Coca-Cola, though not as we know it today.

William Halsted was a pioneer American surgeon. He fought for antiseptic working arenas and clean outfits for staff, and developed new, stronger methods of suturing. He was interested in the use of cocaine as an anesthetic, and experimented by using the drug himself.

Sigmund Freud was Sigmund Freud, though not as we know him today. Our story takes place prior to the creation of psychoanalysis, when Freud was young and ambitious and sure of his own brilliance–and saw cocaine research as a possible pathway to glory. He experimented on at least one unfortunate friend, but he also experimented on himself.

Howard Markel’s new book, An Anatomy of Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted, and the Miracle Drug Cocaine tells about the drug involvements of two men who changed the world of medicine. It’s a fascinating if occasionally nauseating read. Next time you’re in the hospital–I mean if you ever, ever have to go–be thankful that your doctors aren’t wearing dirty, bloodstained work clothes, and pray that they’re not on coke.

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