Narcosis and nightshade
Carter AJ.
North Staffordshire Hospital,
Stoke on Trent.
BMJ. 1996 Dec 21-28;313(7072):1630-2


Although this year marks the 150th anniversary of the discovery of modern surgical anaesthesia, surgery itself has a much longer history. It is well known that extracts from the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, were used to dull the pain of surgery during ancient times but less well known that extracts from plants with sedative powers often accompanied them, producing primitive anaesthesia. Most of these sedative plants were members of a large botanical family, the Solanaceae. This paper describes some of them and discusses the ways in which they were administered. It also explains why, during the middle ages, these primitive techniques went out of use but how none the less they provided Shakespeare with the inspiration for some of his greatest plays. When the active principal of the Solanaceae was identified as scopolamine, it came to play a part in 20th century anaesthesia. The combination of omnopon and scopolamine lives on as a premedication, and the presence of poppy heads and mandrake roots on the arms of today's Association of Anaesthetists serves to remind us of the speciality's links with its past.
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The Abolitionist Project
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Critique of Huxley's Brave New World

The Good Drug Guide
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The Responsible Parent's Guide
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