In 1898, Heinrich Dreser, who was head of the Bayer pharmaceutical company’s laboratory, presented a drug at a German Congress of Naturalists and Physicians that was much more powerful than codeine and, he claimed, hardly toxic. This drug was an opiate that was infinitely more powerful than morphine and, moreover, the pharmaceutical company claimed was scarcely addictive. Its name: heroin.
The name was given to the product by the company’s own employees who were used as guinea pigs. People felt euphoric when taking it and it seemed to immediately relieve some of the annoying ailments that were widespread at the time, such as coughs and other ailments that were relatively common in everyday life. Those who took it claimed to feel euphoric, like heroes. Heinrich Dreser himself also ended up taking the product when he saw the effect on the company’s employees.
But soon after, the product proved to be highly addictive and many of the company’s employees became addicted to it. Unable to afford the product in a normal way, they ended up selling off various possessions to continue to get income from feeling chemically euphoric. Many of those early employee consumers ended up as zombies, living in dumps and filthy places. Their bodies demanded more and more doses until they became part of the urban furniture under the name of junkies (yonquis in Spanish). A term derived from the English word junk which stands for garbage.
But all that human misery mattered little to the Bayer company, the owner of the patent for the famous aspirin, and in 1899, when tuberculosis was ravaging Europe, and taking into account Dreser’s assurances that the drug really had beneficial effects on the patient and that it was much healthier than morphine, the pharmaceutical company launched a worldwide campaign against tuberculosis, and given its “special quality”, special emphasis was placed on the health of children. The industrial revolution had made many small workers ill and so Bayer heroin syrup was launched. At the beginning of the 20th century, this pharmaceutical product was prescribed in more than twenty countries, causing hundreds of children to die because their immune systems were weaker than those of adults. It was even claimed that the remedy was even used to fight colds.
The dementia was also joined by groups of psychiatrists, who saw in this fascinating compound an effective remedy for depression and what was then known as neurasthenia. The craze even spread to the treatment of morphine addicts, without realising that the compound, known as heroin, was transformed into more morphine as it passed through the liver, which meant that the addiction it generated was much greater than the morphine itself. Even the famous pamphlet Boston Medical and Surgical Journal claimed that heroin was superior to morphine and that there was no risk of addiction. It was undoubtedly a product endorsed by the science of the time.
The historian Fernando Paz, in his book ¡Despierta! (Wake up!) comments the following:
“… although a few years later there were voices clamouring against the medicinal use of heroin, finally managing to put the “medicine” out of circulation, this spread to other compounds that continued to be marketed until well into the third decade of the 20th century”.
The historian notes that the Eli Lily company, for example, began selling 100-tablet bottles of heroin. And the British company Allen and Hanburys, which later merged into the Glaxo group, patented pills that it mixed with cocaine to make them stronger. The same historian goes on to comment:
“… in the United States heroin was excluded from free sale in 1920, by which time there were already some 200,000 heroin addicts in the country. But it was only banned in 1925. That same year, the Espasa Calpe Encyclopaedia still described it as ‘as a good substitute for codeine and morphine’…”.
At that time there was a sort of League of Nations Hygiene Committee, something like today’s WHO, which did not advise its outlawing until 1931. Although in Germany it continued to be sold in pharmacies until 1958, thus turning these establishments into interesting “pushers” through which the product reached thousands of people. It was outlawed in Germany in 1971.
These brief notes on a complex subject like Heroin should open our eyes to the use by big pharma of increasingly dangerous and, of course, addictive products. This is something we will be reporting on, despite the fact that they may well be treated as alarmists. Heroin was backed by science, as were thousands of other products. Today we will see few reports in the media on issues like this because the money that is spent on advertising drugs, often unnecessary, fills the income account of many media groups.
We must respect science yes, but science with a conscience, something that many scientists and many companies lack.
¡Despìerta! (Wake up!) Book by Fernando Paz, published by La Esfera de los Libros 2021.