Jim Mills | Poppies, Opiates, and Pain in Early Modern Scotland, c.1664–1785

This talk, recorded on 9 December 2020, is from our seminar series What’s Your Poison?, which investigated the history of specific intoxicants. Jim Mills (University of Strathclyde) here explores opium. He focuses on the uses of opiates in early modern Scotland in an effort to trace the neglected story of just how poppy-based substances were used in this period across the British Isles. It explores their history in medical practices there, examining sources as varied as household recipes, apothecaries’ invoices, and the family correspondence of surgeons alongside the medical treatises and publications of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. In considering the deployment of medicinal concoctions made from both the local red poppy and imported opium from the white poppy, the paper argues that use of the former may have paved the way for the development of a market for the latter; the mild analgesia to be had from the rhoeadine of the red flowers had prepared medical practitioners and others for the more potent painkilling to be had from papaver somniferum products. In this light the imported opium looks less like an ‘exotic’ addition to the medicine of the period in Britain, and more like an enhancement drawn into existing ideas and practices. The paper also concludes that, as there is no evidence to be found in these sources of anyone using the new products for intoxication, it was pain and not pleasure which drove the market for imported opium.
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