Wed, 02 May 2018 12:00 UTC
Thanks to one man’s researches, cannabis was drug of choice for ailments from migraine to epilepsy – until an unexpected twist led to its downfall
ON THE evening of 6 November 1838, William Brooke O’Shaughnessy received an urgent note from the hospital where he worked. Could he come immediately? One of his patients was exhibiting “very peculiar and formidable” symptoms. Alarmed, he rushed to the man’s bedside.
O’Shaughnessy, assistant surgeon with the East India Company’s Bengal Medical Service, had reason to worry. The patient was one of the first human guinea pigs in his pioneering experiments with cannabis. A few hours earlier, the man had been given a modest dose of cannabis resin dissolved in alcohol. What might have gone wrong?
To a scientifically inclined physician based in India, cannabis – or Indian hemp – was a prime candidate for investigation. It was popular as a means of intoxication, but local doctors also valued it as a treatment for a range of ailments. In 1813, one of O’Shaughnessy’s predecessors reported somewhat sniffily on the intemperate habits of those who indulged in the various preparations. But O’Shaughnessy believed cannabis would make a useful addition to Western medicine and decided to put it to the test.
O’Shaughnessy wasn’t just a doctor: he was also a skilled analytical chemist with a modern approach to medical research. He had made a big impression with his meticulous analyses of blood and excreta from people with cholera during an outbreak in England in 1831. He showed that patients were dangerously dehydrated and that bloodletting – then standard treatment – did more harm than good. Two years later, O’Shaughnessy landed a job with the East India Company and set sail for Calcutta.
For millennia, cannabis had been used as a medicine from Egypt to India and China. It had been a traditional remedy in Europe, too, but was hurriedly dropped after Pope Innocent VIII condemned it in 1484 as “an unholy sacrament”. By the 19th century, cannabis was largely forgotten in the West.
In 1890, cannabis was described by one doctor as “one of the most valuable medicines we possess”