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Friedrich Sertürner (1783-1841)

The German Friedrich Sertürner discovered the painkiller morphine in opium while working as a pharmacist's apprentice in 1805.

Opium, a narcotic produced from the seed pods of the poppy plant, had been in use as a medical and recreational drug since prehistoric times. It was the main ingredient in laudanum, a popular medicine developed by the influential physician Paracelsus in 1527. With the new developments in chemistry introduced by Lavoisier and others in the late 1700s, many chemists began to try to isolate the active ingredients in plants.

When other chemists did not believe the initial report of Sertürner's discovery of morphinr, he resorted to public experimentation on himself and three friends to prove that the substance he had isolated was indeed the one which was responsible for the actions of opium. He named the new substance ‘morphine’ after Morpheus, the ancient Greeks’ god of sleep and dreams.

Morphine became more widely used from 1815, most importantly for pain relief but also, initially, as a substitute for alcohol and opium addicts - until doctors realised that morphine was actually even more addictive than the substances it was supposed to replace. Sertürner's success encouraged others - by 1820 chemists had isolated other medically important substances such as quininestrychnine and caffeine.

 

Glossary:

Morphine

A painkilling drug derived from opium. Morphine is used in hospitals around the world due to its relative lack of side effects.

Narcotic

A term used to describe any drug that can dull the senses or cause numbness. In the USA the term is applied to all drugs that are classified as illegal.

Laudanum

A herbal preparation of opium. It is made by mixing ethanol with opium. In the 1800s, laudanum was prescribed by many doctors to reduce pain and aid sleep.

Strychnine

A naturally occurring drug derived from trees. In small doses strychnine functions as a central nervous system stimulant, but in higher doses it is extremely poisonous.

Caffeine

A mild stimulant that is found in tea and coffee. It is often included, in small doses, in pain relief preparations, and is claimed to increase its effects.