May 2015 will mark the 210th anniversary of one of the world's most controversial painkillers, Morphine. Morphine is classified as a narcotic. It is used as an anesthetic or as an analgesic. The famous narcotic has been surrounded by controversy since its inception around 1805. The contention surrounding the opiate stems from its highly addictive nature. It is also considered to be incredibly dangerous because of its hallucinogenic features and abusive recreational usage. Another major reason for the onslaught of controversy is rooted in its highly misdiagnosed use. Morphine really came onto the scene around 1828 as a drug that was marketed to resolve alcohol and opium addiction.
To the naked eye, the innocent looking poppy (pictured above) appears like something you would just give someone to inevitably die in a flower vase. However, morphine is an opiate obtained from the seedpod extract or opium resin of the poppy. The poppy is part of the flowering plant family. It is included in a handful of different species that can be found in a variety of colors with different markings. Although capable of being utilized as a powerful narcotic, poppies can often be found in the every day garden or lawn decoration. The question is, how does one go from simple looking flower to a powerful narcotic?
Many historians trace the early stages of Morphine's development to the man pictured above. Paracelsus was a 15th century alchemist, scientist, and ladies man. Ok, maybe not that last one. However, many believe him to be the first to utilize an elixir called laudanum (an alcohol based tincture containing morphine, prepared from opium) as a pain killer. Historical sources claim that Paracelsus advised that this substance should be used sparingly. His warning seemed almost prophetic in light of the history of Morphine. Paracelsus' elixir is thought to have greatly increased in popularity toward the mid 1700's. Drugs like Laudanum were highly sought and traded. The item's popularity appears to have been triggered by the East India Company's popular opium trade. However, Morphine as we know it had still not arrived in history. This brings us to the German scientist and pharmacist Friedrich Serturner.
While working as a pharmacist apprentice in 1805 Friedrich Serturner published years of opium research in a French pharmaceutical journal. In the journal he explained his initial results stating that he had in fact successfully isolated a substance from opium. He went on in the letter to report that the isolated substance was exhibiting characteristics of an alkaline. An alkaline is a substance that contains alkali which is a compound that neutralizes acids and has a pH greater than 7. This was no simple task given the the technology and resources that were readily available in the early 1800's. In Richard Leroy Meyers "The 100 Most Important Chemical Compounds: A Reference Guide, the process of obtaining morphine is outlined as follows:
"The process to obtain morphine from opium involves boiling a water-opium solution and adding calcium hydroxide. The calcium hydroxide combines with the morphine to form the water-soluble salt calcium morphenate. As the solution cools, other insoluble alkaloids precipitate out of the solution, leaving morphine in the solution. The Solution is filtered and then reheated. Ammonium chloride is added to increase the solution's pH level to 9-10, and the insoluble salt morphine hydrochloride is formed. which precipitates out upon cooling"
Around a year later, Serturner relocated to Einbeck after successfully completing the testing necessary to become a pharmacist's assistant. There he became an assistant to the pharmacist at the magistrate's pharmacy. Due to the pharmacist's old age, Serturner planned to take over as pharmacist, but was unsuccessful. However, the story doesn't end there.
Enter Napoleon Bonaparte. Bet you didn't see that coming. As Napoleon's troops began to invade Europe, the area Serturner worked in came under French law. Due to the arrival of French law, Serturner was then permitted to open a second pharmacy. This in turn allowed Him to conduct further research of this isolated substance. The results were published in two papers estimated to have been written around 1817. One of the papers contained detailed information about this substance and its interaction with humans. It also included a name for the substance for the first time, "morphine". When other professionals doubted the discovery Serturner had made, he did the unthinkable. He experimented on himself to demonstrate that his discovery had a similar effect to that of opium. After experiencing the sleeping effect of the drug on himself, Serturner named the drug Morphine after Morpheus the mythological Greek god of sleep and dreams. When Napoleon's reign came to an end, Serturner was forced to close his pharmacy doors. He later went on to play a major role in the German epidemic of a vicious form of Cholera.
In the mid-1820's Morphine was widely accessible in Western Europe because of its increased interest in the medical field. Many believe the popularity spark was due to a paper published by a French doctor named Francois Magendie. The paper was the result of a case study describing the effect of morphine on a sickly young girl. The paper described morphine as a pain reliever that provides much needed rest for ailing patients. By the 1850's, the development of the first reliable syringes for injecting drugs were largely responsible for morphine being essentially standardized as a way of numbing pain before, during, and after surgery. This particular use for morphine unfortunately became brutally evident in the American Civil War from 1861 to 1865. It has been reported that an estimated amount of 40,000 people left that war addicted to morphine. The Franco-Prussian war was believed to have produced hundreds of thousand of morphine addicts after the conflict ended in 1871. The 1870's set the scene for the realization of the drug's addictive nature and misdiagnosed use of morphine.
It was not until 1925 that structure of morphine was determined and understood as an empirical formula. Sir Robert Robinson and John Mason Gulland are responsible for that. Finally in 1952, Marshall D. Gates Jr. and his co-worker Gilg Tsdchudi unlocked the future of morphine by synthesizing it in their laboratory.
The 100 Most Important Chemical Compounds: A Reference Guide by Richard Leroy Meyers