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  • Marie McKinsey

In Praise of Laudanum

Updated: Nov 24, 2022

Opium poppy in Seattle - Outlander Plants

"'...What I could really use... do you by chance have any sort of opiate?' I sank to my knees beside her to pore over the contents of the box. 'Oh, yes!' Her hand went unerringly to a small green flask. 'Flowers of laudanum,' she read from the label. 'Will that do?' 'Perfect.' I accepted the flask gratefully."

-- from OUTLANDER, by Diana Gabaldon, Chapter 36

Claire wanted the laudanum to sedate Jamie while she treated his badly damaged hand. In the event, he insisted on substituting whiskey for the drug, coping with the pain by biting down on a stout leather strap.

Laudanum was the invention of the 16th century Swiss-German alchemist Paracelsus. He experimented with various opium concoctions and discovered that opium alkaloids are more soluble in alcohol than in water. He came up with a tincture of opium and alcohol that made a very effective pain reliever. He gave this medicine the name "laudanum" from the Latin verb laudare which means "to praise." When you consider that laudanum was perhaps the most useful preparation available at the time for the relief from pain, cough, diarrhea and a host of other ailments, the name certainly fits.

Here's a quote from Wikipedia:

"By the 18th century, the medicinal properties of opium and laudanum were well known. Several physicians, including John Jones, John Brown, and George Young, the latter of whom published a comprehensive medical text entitled Treatise on Opium extolled the virtues of laudanum and recommended the drug for practically every ailment.[2] "Opium, and after 1820, morphine, was mixed with everything imaginable: mercury, hashish, cayenne pepper, ether, chloroform, belladonna, whiskey, wine and brandy."[5]

Botanical Information

Family: Papaveraceae

Genus: Papaver

Species: Papaver somniferum

Common name: Opium poppy; the translation of the Latin name is Papaver = poppy, somniferum = sleep-making; it was called the "joy plant" by the ancient Sumerians.

It is believed that opium poppies are native to southeastern Europe and western Asia. They have been in cultivation and use since prehistoric times.


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