Materia Medica

Powerful poppies!

Posted on Updated on

by Jemma

This blog post is going to focus on a particularly interesting plant called Papaver somniferum, more commonly known as the opium poppy. Not only does this plant have a fascinating medicinal history, it also impacted heavily on us socially.

Pressed poppy flowers from Europe
Pressed poppy flowers from Europe

Firstly, a bit on the poppy’s medicinal use. Opium, the narcotic extracted from the plant’s seed pod, contains a number of natural painkillers and has been used in pain relief for millennia. In the 17th century, a tincture of opium combined with alcohol became readily available to the general populace under the name laudanum. Along with acting as a painkiller, laudanum was quickly employed as a cure for almost every ailment: from colds to heart problems to menstrual cramps. The drug morphine was later extracted from the opium poppy by the German pharmacist Friedrich Sertürner in the early 19th century. Morphine quickly became one of the most widely used painkillers in medicine. A further extract, called heroin, was released in 1898 by the drug company Bayer. This well known drug is now an illegal substance that is frequently abused. All of the forms of opium can be highly addictive and long term use may result in interference with the brain’s endorphin receptors. These receptors are responsible for preventing the transmission of pain signals, making withdrawal difficult.

Poppy seeds contain less of the opiates but can give a positive result on a drug test if too many are eaten. From the Materia Medica
The poppy seeds do not contain much of the opiates but can give a positive result on a drug test if too many are eaten. From the Materia Medica

P. somniferum use predates human recorded history and has been found in Neolithic burial sites as far back as 4,200 BC. The use of opium has been documented in numerous ancient medicinal texts including the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus from 1,500BC and those by Hippocrates in 460 BC and Dioscorides in 1st century AD.

One country that has played a big part in the history of opium is China, which was first introduced to P. somniferum between the 4th and 12th centuries via the trading route known as the Silk Road. By the 1600s, opium was smoked with tobacco and had become a popular pastime for the social elite. The recreational use of opium soon spread to the lower classes and its popularity soared. British traders from the East India Company sold large quantities of opium to smugglers to meet the growing demand for the drug. Worried by this, the Chinese Emperor began to take serious measurers to stop the illegal importation of opium, and in 1838 opium worth millions was destroyed by the Chinese Commissioner Lin Zexu.

Since opium smuggling accounted for 15-20% of income for the British Empire, they started of the First Opium War on 18th March 1839 to combat the clampdown. The British won in 1842 and implemented a series of Unequal Treaties. The first of which, the Treaty of Nanking, involved trade concessions as well as forcing the Chinese to pay a total of 21 million ounces of silver in compensation. When Britain tried to make further demands in the 1850s, the Chinese refused and the Second Opium War began. Once again, China lost and this time was forced to legalise the opium trade.

Soon opium use spread from China to the west and, as opium dens became commonplace in cities, Britain attempted to curb the use by its populace. From the 1880s onwards, they tried to reduce opium production in China by discouraging its use. However, this had the opposite effect and opium’s popularity continued to escalate. After the introduction of the more addictive heroin by Bayer, the use of opium and heroin soared even further.

Two opium pipes in the museum's collection.
Two opium pipes in the museum’s collection.

In 1906, the anti-opium initiative was set up by the Chinese to attempt to eradicate the problem. The initiative tried to turn public opinion against the drug through numerous methods, such as meetings, legal action and the requiring of licence. Opium farmers had their properties destroyed, land confiscated and sometimes publically tortured in an attempt to turn the general population against using opium. Though cruel, this method was quickly deemed a success with the majority of Chinese provinces ceasing opium production. However, this success was short-lived. By 1930, China had become the primary source of opium in Eastern Asia. Today it is estimated that 27 million people[1] are addicted to opiates in one form or another and heroin continues to be a widely abused drug across the world.

Despite its chequered past and uses, the opium poppy has still contributed greatly to modern medicine and produces one of the most widely used painkillers today: morphine.

An illustration of the opium poppy from the Leo Grindon collection of the Herbarium
An illustration of the opium poppy from the Leo Grindon collection of the Herbarium

[1] According to the World Drug Report 2014 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

Advertisements

Trick or Treat!

Posted on Updated on

by Jemma.

It’s Halloween! A time for magic, spells and potions! We have many plants in the Materia Medica that were used for mystical purposes. So if you are a witch in need of ingredients for your flying ointment: we have belladonna, which you can mix with hemlock, wolfsbane and other such ingredients to make your broom fly high into the sky. We also stock Tonka beans, magic beans that are said to grant wishes! Or if you have been bitten by a werewolf and are in need of a cure: have no fear for we have Colocynth pulp, one of the cures for lycanthropy! We have everything you need and more to survive this night intact.

Happy Halloween everyone!

belladonna
Flying ointment’s belladonna
tonka
Wish granting Tonka beans
colocynth
Werewolf cure colocynth pulp
dragon's blood
Dragon’s blood
DSC_0699
Wolfsbane

 

Old wives tales?

Posted on Updated on

Some of the Materia Medica jars have been dusted off and used for a creative writing session as part of the Manchester Science Festival 2014. Many lovely people turned up for the event and used the jars as inspiration to write some poetry. Here are some of the poems that were produced:

 

Cancer Defeated by Nick Duffy

Radioactive

Energy

Medical

Experiment

Defeated

You

 

The Old Ways: Alternatives by Diane Duffy

 What is left of the old ways?

 Old wives’ tales,

                                                     Old wives.

 Shrivelled nature dried under glass,

 Decayed matter on a shelf.

                                                      On the shelf

The woman and her cures become one

 A metaphor for the past.

                                                   Alternatives?

 Alternative – no alternative.

 Wise woman translated into WITCH.

                                                  Which to choose?

 Now we have a choice!

 

The Materia Medica by Jemma Houghton

Down the spiral staircase

Through that old wooden door

Find yourself in a magical place

Strange looking jars from ceiling to floor

 

Through that old wooden door

Big jars, little jars, flat and tall too

Strange looking jars from ceiling to floor

Look them up and see what they do

 

Big jars, little jars, flat and tall too

Find yourself in a magical place

Look them up and see what they do

Down the spiral staircase

 

Thank you to poet Tony Sheppard, for running an interesting session, and to all who turned up to the event.

photo3
Jars from the Materia Medica
labels 2
Information about historic and current uses
photo5
Creative writers looking at jars

 

photo
Writing creatively with help from poet Tony Sheppard

 

Old wives tales?

Posted on Updated on

Museum Meets

Old Wives Tales?

Thurs 23 Oct, 2-4pm. Taking inspiration from the Museum’s fascinating material medical collection, explore our relationship to medicine through conversation and creative writing. Chat about family remedies and whether there’s any truth behind natural cures. Take part in simple poetry exercises to compose your own piece about your experiences and memories. With poet Tony Sheppard and Curator of Botany, Rachel Webster. Part of Manchester Science Festival, supported by Siemens.

Price: Book on 0161 275 2648 or museum@manchester.ac.uk, free, adults

View original post

Boxes and the Materia Medica

Posted on Updated on

Hello! My name is Jemma and I am the new placement student in the herbarium. I have had a fantastic and busy few weeks so far with Rachel and Lindsey. We have moved many, many, many boxes ready for the building work that is to happen in the herbarium. This has also meant that, for the time being, we have taken over archery with our herbarium sheets!

DSC_0405 DSC_0413 DSC_0415

I have also had a chance to research some of the items in my favourite room in the herbarium: the Materia Medica! Here are some of the weird and wonderful ones I’ve found.

rose petals
rosae gallica petala
colocynthidis pulpa
colocynthidis pulpa
belae fructus
belae fructus

lupulus

tung oil neatsfoot oil adeps lame hydrosus