Thursday 2nd December, 2021

Issue No.69

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The European doctor who started marijuana research more than 170 years ago

In the first half of the 19th century, Irish physician William Brooke O'Shaughnessy lived for a few years in India and started something entirely new for the Western world: marijuana research.

Cannabis has been used in the region for thousands of years as a medicine or recreational substance. But, in Western medical literature, there was no information about the plant.

white microscope on top of black table. The European doctor who started marijuana research more than 170 years ago

"I have not been able to locate references to the use of this substance in Europe," the doctor wrote, in a study focused on marijuana research published in 1839 in the journal Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, entitled "On the preparations of Indian cannabis, or Gunjah" (the original article which can be found following this link).

O'Shaughnessy's study proposed to register the medical potential of cannabis from a scientific perspective. In addition, he made observations about the social use of the substance. According to O'Shaughnessy, the drug was used by "all kinds of people." Among its "fascinating" effects were "the euphoric bliss", "the sensation of flying", a "voracious appetite", and "an intense aphrodisiac desire".

Scientific Experiments with Marijuana in India

Born in 1809, O'Shaughnessy studied medicine at Trinity College in Dublin and later in Edinburgh, Scotland. At a very young age, at the age of 24, he accepted an offer to work in Calcutta, India, as a surgical assistant for the then famous East India Company, a British company that controlled and governed a large part of the Indies.

It was eight years in Calcutta. During this period, the Irish doctor experimented with a variety of local plants, such as opium and cannabis.

Cannabis, specifically, was well known by local society, but not by medicine. So the doctor decided to do rigorous marijuana research, consulting both bibliographic and human sources.

In addition, he experimented with different animals, such as rats, rabbits, cats, dogs, horses, monkeys, and even birds and fish, describing the drug's effect on each one of them.

man in blue dress shirt wearing black framed eyeglasses. The European doctor who started marijuana research more than 170 years ago

In one of these experiments, the doctor gave ten grams of the substance to a medium-sized dog. Half an hour later, the animal "became stupid and sleepy," and "its face looked like utter and utter drunkenness."

"These symptoms lasted from one to two hours and then gradually disappeared. Six hours later, the animal was active and perfectly well," he noted.

After confirming that using cannabis was safe, O'Shaughnessy began experimenting with the substance in humans, both adults, and children. In addition, he started using cannabis in treating his hospital patients—sick of cholera, rheumatism, rabies, tetanus, and people with seizures.

The Doctor's Findings On Marijuana research

The Irish doctor focusing on marijuana research has not been able to cure many illnesses with cannabis. But he concluded that the substance could help treat severe symptoms of many ailments. It could, for example, soothe and alleviate pain, as well as muscle spasms typical of tetanus and rage, reducing "the horrors of illness."

He also noted that cannabis could prevent seizures in a newborn, just 40 days old. About this case, the doctor wrote: "the profession gained an anticonvulsant medicine of great value".

In 1839, O'Shaughnessy publicly defended the use of cannabis in medicine, mainly as an analgesic, when presenting his thesis at the Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta.

The marijuana research would cause a furore in colonial England - and then throughout Europe and the United States. And it is considered to be the milestone in the introduction of cannabis into Western medicine. Cannabis was used in the United States as medicine from 1850 onwards.

Cannabis has become a medical fever in the West

woman in a blue scrub suit standing beside a woman in a white robe. The European doctor who started marijuana research more than 170 years ago

When O'Shaughnessy returned to England in 1841, he took with him samples of cannabis, both plant, and resin.

He presented the substance to the Royal Pharmaceutical Society and the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, London, and described his marijuana research, claiming the substance was a "miracle" remedy for some of the worst diseases of the 19th century.

Since then, many researchers in Europe and the United States have begun to focus on marijuana research and experiment with cannabis in different medical treatments. Many also tried to find out what the active ingredient in cannabis was - but that would not happen until a century later, in the mid-1960s.

In the mid-19th century, cannabis-based remedies began to be produced, some of them based on prescriptions left by the Irish doctor. The products became popular, reaching their peak at the end of the century.

But at the turn of the 20th century, the use of these remedies began to decline. One reason was the difficulties in producing stable results from different batches of plants, as cannabis potency varied widely.

As early as the 1930s, the use of cannabis-based medicinal remedies began to be restricted. In 1937, its sale was banned in the United States. In 1942, cannabis was removed from the pharmaceutical encyclopedia. And, starting in the 1950s, marijuana possession became criminalized and fined. Something similar happened in other countries.

Today, the use of cannabis in medical treatments remains controversial. From 1930 onwards, the use of cannabis began to be restricted in many countries, but the discoveries made 150 years ago are still valid today. Interestingly, after the success of his thesis on the medical potential of marijuana, O'Shaughnessy shifted gears and turned to electrical engineering.

He returned to India, where he spent 15 years working on a telegraph line. For his efforts on the project, he received the title of "Sir" from Queen Victoria. In 1860 he returned once more to England. In 1889 he died. Little is known about his final years.

Perhaps most surprising of O'Shaughnessy's story on marijuana research is that some of his discoveries in 1839 are still valid today: the main medical uses of cannabis remain as an analgesic and anticonvulsant.

woman holding test tubes. The European doctor who started marijuana research more than 170 years ago

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