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Highlights: Explorations in the Medical Humanities: Three Ways of Looking at an Opium Ball

Public Humanities, Explorations in the Medical Humanities

April 12, 2018

Highlights: The opium poppy (Papaver somniferum) is one of the plants that has stood longest at the side of humans — and one of the most ambiguous. It can be deeply harmful; it can also be miraculously helpful. It is a European native that somehow became an enduring symbol of Orientalism. Today, it continues to serve as the raw material for a host of copyrighted and hugely valuable pharmaceutical compounds, while also exemplifying a bygone medical tradition. This talk sketches out three ways of looking at opium within a bounded historical context. We will look first at the deep history of Papaver somniferum, which has an ancient heritage of medical and recreational use in Europe. The second way of looking at an opium ball raises the question of why opium became so closely associated with Persia, India, and eventually China from the seventeenth century onward. I link this shift to the emergence of new theories of medicine, biology, and empire in early modern Europe, and, perhaps even more importantly, to unheralded technological changes such as the invention of the opium pipe and the hookah. The third view of an opium ball is to look not at it, but inside it: opium itself is not in high demand today, but the opiate molecules it contains are more popular than ever. The final section of the talk will consider how the isolation of morphine from opium (circa 1803) transformed not just this particular drug, but the history of drugs and pharmaceuticals as a whole. These three views of an opium ball are meant to highlight both the protean identities of the drug in different times and places, and the surprising continuities between them.