Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Laudanum in the 17th century

In a prior post, I mentioned that I needed to check the history of opiates such as laudanum. Here's what I learned.
Paracelsus, a 16th-century Swiss-German alchemist, discovered that the alkaloids in opium are far more soluble in alcohol than water. Having experimented with various opium concoctions, Paracelsus came across a specific tincture of opium that was of considerable use in reducing pain. He called this preparation laudanum, derived from the Latin verb laudare, to praise. Initially, the term "laudanum" referred to any tincture or combination of opium and alcohol. Indeed, Paracelsus' laudanum was strikingly different from the standard laudanum of the 17th century and beyond. His preparation contained opium, crushed pearls, musk, amber, and other substances. One researcher has documented that "Laudanum, as listed in the London Pharmacoepoeia (1618), was a pill made from opium, saffron, castor, ambergris, musk and nutmeg".

Laudanum remained largely unknown until the 1660s when English physician Thomas Sydenham (1624–1689) compounded a proprietary opium tincture that he also named laudanum, although it differed substantially from the laudanum of Paracelsus. Sydenham flavoured his tincture with saffron, cinnamon, and clover. This exotic preparation came to be called ‘Sydenham’s laudanum’ and became a very popular remedy in Europe. So enthusiastic was his advocacy of opium that Sydenham, who was sometimes known as ‘the English Hippocrates’ also won the nickname ‘Opiophilos’ (lover of opium). In 1676 Sydenham published a seminal work, Medical Observations Concerning the History and Cure of Acute Diseases, in which he promoted his brand of opium tincture, and advocated its use for a range of medical conditions. By the 18th century, the medicinal properties of opium and laudanum were well known.

Several historical varieties of laudanum exist, including Paracelsus' laudanum, Sydenham's Laudanum (also known as tinctura opii crocata), benzoic laudanum (tinctura opii benzoica), and deodorized tincture of opium (the most common contemporary formulation), among others. Depending on the version, additional amounts of the substances and additional active ingredients (e.g. saffron, sugar, eugenol) are added, modifying its effects (e.g., amount of sedation, or anti-tussive properties). There is probably no single reference that lists all the pharmaceutical variations of laudanum that were created and used in different countries in the centuries since it was initially formulated. The reasons are that in addition to official variations described in pharmacoepias, pharmacists and drug manufacturers were free to alter such formulas. The alcohol content of Laudanum probably varied substantially; on the labels of turn-of-the-century bottles of Laudanum, alcoholic content is stated as 48%. In contrast, the current version of Laudanum contains about 18% alcohol.


Some variety of laudanum is certainly available in the 1620s, but it is not as widely used or known as it will be towards the end of the century or thereafter. But for a follower of Paracelsus, like most Huguenot physicians, laudanum should be included as part of their medical kit.



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