When it came to pain relief during World War One, the medication of choice was morphine. It was reserved for the most severe injuries as its addictive properties were already well known. So much so that morphine addiction was referred to by the euphemism “soldier’s disease” as far back as the American Civil War.
Morphine works by relaxing the body, reducing shortness of breath and killing pain. It is derived from opium and has been used as a pain reliever since the early 19th century. By the start of the war, it was available only by prescription, but originally was sold over-the-counter.
Because it is so highly addictive, morphine addiction is difficult to cure, and patients go through many withdrawal symptoms. The majority of addicts will relapse.
Other Early Painkillers
Very few pain medications were available during the early part of the 20th century.
Let’s look at the other choices medical professionals had available.
Aspirin: Used for pain relief and fever reduction, German pharmaceutical company Bayer lost its trademark on aspirin in 1918. The drug saw widespread use during the Spanish Flu pandemic and may have contributed to the high mortality rate.
Patent Medicines: These over-the-counter drugs were available until the United States and Canada required all drug ingredients be labeled. These drugs were advertised to cure or prevent a variety of ailments, but were not true medications. The secret ingredients contained in the products were generally herbs, alcohol, cocaine or opium. Some were even radioactive.
Laudanum: Derived from opium, laudanum was popular in the 19th century, but is still available today; it is known as a tincture of opium. While it was advertised as a cure for a variety of ailments including menstrual cramps and colic, it was typically used as a pain reliever or a cough suppressant. Other drugs have been derived from opium throughout the years, including oxycodone that was developed in Germany in 1916.
Cocaine: Cocaine has a numbing effect so it was used primarily for dental procedures but also for nose and eye surgeries. In addition, it was used as a spinal anesthesia.
Heroin: Heroin was developed as a cure for morphine addiction. Its developer, an English chemist, didn’t realize or intend for heroin to be more addictive than morphine. It was marketed by Bayer, which lost the trademark in 1919. Bayer marketed it as a non-addictive alternative to morphine and as a cough suppressant.
This post was reprinted with my permission on Scotland's War.
Updated: 21 October 2020