A century before China reached its peak opium addiction, in 1803 the German scientist, Friedrich Wilhelm Sertüner, discovered a better pain reliever by extracting opium’s first alkaloid.
Called morphine, after the Greek god Morpheus who induced a dreamy sleepy state, the German pharmaceutical company Merck began to produce and market the drug as an analgesic and treatment for opium and alcohol addiction. Unfortunately, morphine proved to be more addicting than opium and alcohol.
The discovery of the hypodermic needle in 1853 facilitated the instantaneous delivery of morphine to wounded U.S. Civil War soldiers on the battlefield, as well as for those suffering from dysentery. An estimated 10 million doses of the drug were given to Union soldiers alone. Morphine and opium also began to be commonly prescribed for female ‘mood disorders’, gynecological infections, depression, and even nymphomania.
While the figures are still controversial, as returning soldiers continued to use both morphine and opium to dull the psychological pains from war, there were an estimated 400,000 addict male soldiers by the late 1860s and 300,000 female addicts. Several different surveys done at the time found the majority of opium users were women, and tended to be white, upper class and from the south. The numbers tapered off by the early 1900s as doctors realized the highly addictive properties of the drug and the Civil War vet generation gradually died off.