Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Got a headache?

You get a headache you take a pill, right? Easy. I bet you don't spend a lot of time thinking how someone coped before the multi-national pharmaceuticals came along, but if you did I suppose self-medicating with medicinal brandy or something similar comes to mind. After all, all these modern painkillers we take for granted are just something that came along in the last few decades...and yes, some of them have. But not all of them.

Opium poppies have been farmed almost since the beginning of cultivation...and until the 19th-century, opium derivatives had been the go-to for pain relief across the Europe and Asia. For the Romans, poppy syrup was being taken in tablet form, which meant a big dose of all the opiate alkaloids - particularly morphine - with every pill. In the 1st-century AD, Pliny notes several leading medical authorities already campaigning against the use of raw opium, sighting blindness and fatal comas as a very real danger. So what was the alternative? It might surprise you, but it's probably something you've taken, and might even have in your medicine cabinet even now. What is it? Codeine - second to morphine as the most common alkaloid found in opium. Pliny describes the drug as 'well-known' but unfortunately doesn't elaborate on its production and refining from raw opium - presuming, I suppose - that most of his readers knew what he was talking about. What is interesting is that Romans were buying Codeine tablets in the 1st-century AD despite the alkaloid only being 'rediscovered' in 1832. Obviously Roman chemists were just as sophisticated as their 19th-century counterparts - and face it, if you've ever had a headache, you'd certainly be wanting to buy something to get rid of it - the Romans understood supply and demand.

Find out if Calvus caused his own headaches