11 Unbelievable Moments from Cocaine’s Early Medical History

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In 1900, cocaine wasn’t just a drug – it was the drug that could cure anything that ailed a patient. Here’s how it came to be Americans’ medicine of choice in the first decade of the 20th century.

1. The Eyes Have It

Although cocaine would later be prescribed for scores of dubious reasons, its initial medical use was legitimate. In 1884 Austrian ophthalmologist Carl Koller discovered that placing a few drops of a cocaine solution on a patient’s cornea rendered the eye temporarily immobile and insensitive to pain. Eye surgery, which had previously been extremely difficult due to the eye’s involuntary movements, was suddenly much less risky.

2. On the Nose

News of Koller’s discovery quickly spread throughout the medical world. Doctors quickly realized that cocaine was useful for numbing more than just eyes – it could be used as an anesthetic for procedures on the throat and nose as well. While it sounds crazy now, these extensions were actually medically sound – cocaine is still used as an anesthetic in some sinus procedures.

3. Topping the Charts

Cocaine may have been used as a medicine, but it wasn’t regulated like one. Skeptics worried about the wonder drug’s addictiveness as it spread in popularity, but some of the brightest medical minds scoffed at any concerns – in the 1880s famed neurologist and former Surgeon General William A. Hammond claimed that cocaine habits were no different than tea or coffee habits and that patients could quit cold turkey. By 1900, Americans could walk into any pharmacy and purchase a gram of pure cocaine for 25 cents. Cocaine was one of the country’s five best-selling pharmaceuticals that year.

4. Creative Packaging

At the turn of the 20th century, cocaine was being mixed into everything from soft drinks to wines to medicinal tonics. Some pharmaceutical companies even sold cocaine-laced cigars as a pick-me-up for smokers. Large mail-order companies offered pocket-sized kits that included a hypodermic needle so patients could give themselves cocaine injections.

5. Cheers to Cocaine

Cocaine fans weren’t just injecting and smoking cocaine. Many of the era’s top minds were devotees of Vin Mariani, a patent medicine consisting of Bordeaux wine and coca leaves. A single fluid ounce of the concoction packed six milligrams of cocaine, and it soon became a popular over-the-counter cure for anyone who needed a boost. Some of the era’s biggest names bought into these medicinal effects, including Thomas Edison, Jules Verne, and the McKinley White House.

6. The Best Medicine

Cocaine was more than just a topical anesthetic and stimulant in 1900. It was hawked as a cure for nearly anything. A Connecticut pharmacy’s 1905 newspaper ad boasted, “Coca wine will make a new man or woman of you. Invigorates and stimulates the brain, muscles, nerves, stomach, and heart.” Among the additional diagnoses it was prescribed for: hemorrhoids, indigestion, appetite suppression and fatigue.

7. A Kick in the Teeth

Nothing’s worse than having a toothache, but desperate dental patients of the early 20th century had a magic bullet: cocaine-laden toothache drops. The drops were effective on two fronts. Cocaine’s anesthetic effects soothed the sufferer’s pain as the drug stimulated them into better moods.

8. For the Kids

Cocaine cures weren’t exclusively for adults. Cocaine toothache drops were marketed to children, and coca wines came packaged with dosing instructions for children. In addition to its anesthetic properties, cocaine was hailed as a cure for shyness in children!

9. Singing Cocaine’s Praises

Even without a toothache, patients could take cocaine lozenges as the cure for all manner of oral ailments. In 1900 a Belgian pharmacy marketed cocaine throat drops as “indispensable for singers, teachers, and orators.”

10. Making It Official

Hay fever sufferers loved the therapeutic effects of cocaine so much that in 1884 the United States Hay Fever Association honored the drug as its official remedy. Throughout the early 20th century allergists kept recommending the use of cocaine to ward off hay fever.

11. Doctors Need a Fix

With cocaine so readily available at cheap prices, Americans began getting addicted at an alarming rate. By 1902, upwards of 200,000 Americans were cocaine addicts. A disproportionate number of these addicts were doctors, dentists, and pharmacists – who faced a disastrous combination of stressful, high-stakes work and easy access to piles of cocaine. As the number of addicts swelled to epidemic levels, states and local governments began to crack down on unregulated cocaine use.

10 Radiant Facts About Marie Curie

Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock

Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Poland in 1867, Marie Curie grew up to become one of the most noteworthy scientists of all time. Her long list of accolades is proof of her far-reaching influence, but not every stride she made in the fields of chemistry, physics, and medicine was recognized with an award. Here are some facts you might not know about the iconic researcher.

1. Marie Curie's parents were teachers.

Maria Skłodowska was the fifth and youngest child of two Polish educators. Her parents placed a high value on learning and insisted that all their children—including their daughters—receive a quality education at home and at school. Maria received extra science training from her father, and when she graduated from high school at age 15, she was first in her class.

2. Marie Curie had to seek out alternative education for women.

After collecting her high school diploma, Maria had hoped to study at the University of Warsaw with her sister, Bronia. Because the school didn't accept women, the siblings instead enrolled at the Flying University, a Polish college that welcomed female students. It was still illegal for women to receive higher education at the time so the institution was constantly changing locations to avoid detection from authorities. In 1891 Maria moved to Paris to live with her sister, where she enrolled at the Sorbonne to continue her education.

3. Marie Curie is the only person to win Nobel Prizes in two separate sciences.

Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Agence France Presse, Getty Images

In 1903, Marie Curie made history when she won the Nobel Prize in physics with her husband, Pierre, and with physicist Henri Becquerel for their work on radioactivity, making her the first woman to receive the honor. The second Nobel Prize she took home in 1911 was even more historic: With that win in the chemistry category, she became the first person to win the award twice. And she remains the only person to ever receive Nobel Prizes for two different sciences.

4. Marie Curie added two elements to the Periodic Table.

The second Nobel Prize Marie Curie received recognized her discovery and research of two elements: radium and polonium. The former element was named for the Latin word for ray and the latter was a nod to her home country, Poland.

5. Nobel Prize-winning ran in Marie Curie's family.

Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Central Press, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

When Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, won their Nobel Prize in 1903, their daughter Irène was only 6 years old. She would grow up to follow in her parents' footsteps by jointly winning the Nobel Prize for chemistry with her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, in 1935. They were recognized for their discovery of "artificial" radioactivity, a breakthrough made possible by Irène's parents years earlier. Marie and Pierre's other son-in-law, Henry Labouisse, who married their younger daughter, Ève Curie, accepted a Nobel Prize for Peace on behalf of UNICEF, of which he was the executive director, in 1965. This brought the family's total up to five.

6. Marie Curie did her most important work in a shed.

The research that won Marie Curie her first Nobel Prize required hours of physical labor. In order to prove they had discovered new elements, she and her husband had to produce numerous examples of them by breaking down ore into its chemical components. Their regular labs weren't big enough to accommodate the process, so they moved their work into an old shed behind the school where Pierre worked. According to Curie, the space was a hothouse in the summer and drafty in the winter, with a glass roof that didn't fully protect them from the rain. After the famed German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald visited the Curies' shed to see the place where radium was discovered, he described it as being "a cross between a stable and a potato shed, and if I had not seen the worktable and items of chemical apparatus, I would have thought that I was been played a practical joke."

7. Marie Curie's notebooks are still radioactive.

Marie Curie's journals
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When Marie Curie was performing her most important research on radiation in the early 20th century, she had no idea of the effects it would have on her health. It wasn't unusual for her to walk around her lab with bottles of polonium and radium in her pockets. She even described storing the radioactive material out in the open in her autobiography. "One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles of capsules containing our products […] The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights."

It's no surprise then that Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia, likely caused by prolonged exposure to radiation, in 1934. Even her notebooks are still radioactive a century later. Today they're stored in lead-lined boxes, and will likely remain radioactive for another 1500 years.

8. Marie Curie offered to donate her medals to the war effort.

Marie Curie had only been a double-Nobel Laureate for a few years when she considered parting ways with her medals. At the start of World War I, France put out a call for gold to fund the war effort, so Curie offered to have her two medals melted down. When bank officials refused to accept them, she settled for donating her prize money to purchase war bonds.

9. Marie Curie developed a portable X-ray to treat soldiers.

Marie Curie circa 1930
Marie Curie, circa 1930.
Keystone, Getty Images

Marie's desire to help her adopted country fight the new war didn't end there. After making the donation, she developed an interest in x-rays—not a far jump from her previous work with radium—and it didn't take her long to realize that the emerging technology could be used to aid soldiers on the battlefield. Curie convinced the French government to name her Director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and persuaded her wealthy friends to fund her idea for a mobile x-ray machine. She learned to drive and operate the vehicle herself and treated wounded soldiers at the Battle of the Marne, ignoring protests from skeptical military doctors. Her invention was proven effective at saving lives, and ultimately 20 "petite Curies," as the x-ray machines were called, were built for the war.

10. Marie Curie founded centers for medical research.

Following World War I, Marie Curie embarked on a different fundraising mission, this time with the goal of supporting her research centers in Paris and Warsaw. Curie's radium institutes were the site of important work, like the discovery of a new element, francium, by Marguerite Perey, and the development of artificial radioactivity by Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie. The centers, now known as Institut Curie, are still used as spaces for vital cancer treatment research today.

Why Does Your Arm Hurt After You Get a Flu Shot?

Pornpak Khunatorn/iStock via Getty Images
Pornpak Khunatorn/iStock via Getty Images

If you’ve ever gotten a flu shot, you may have felt soreness in your upper arm for a day or two afterward. That’s just a sign the vaccine is working, immunologists say.

The flu vaccine works by introducing your body to a foreign substance called an antigen (in this case, the antigen is a deactivated or “dead” virus similar to the flu virus). Being exposed to an antigen “primes” immune system cells, preparing them to create antibodies should they ever encounter the foreign substance again [PDF]. The inactive virus in the vaccine can’t make you sick, but it does help sensitize your immune system to potential threats. Essentially, the vaccine puts your body on high alert for anything resembling the flu virus, enabling you to fight off infections and illnesses faster and more effectively than you could otherwise.

In the process of battling the inactive flu virus introduced by the flu vaccine, your immune system also releases mediators like histamine, which causes inflammation. In the event of infection, inflammation is important because it helps your body fight invaders and repair damaged tissue. But it’s also what causes soreness. The flu shot is usually injected into your upper arm, which is why the early immune response—and any pain—tends to be localized there.

Roughly one in five people have this type of painful reaction, immunologist Richard Zimmerman told Popular Science. If you’re susceptible to soreness after receiving a flu shot, there are a few steps you can take to alleviate the pain. Dr. Juanita Mora of the American Lung Association recommends taking an ibuprofen about two hours before getting the shot.

“You can also try icing the injection site to reduce redness and swelling,” Dr. Mora said.

It’s also important to move your arm around after receiving the shot so the vaccine isn’t quite so concentrated in one place. Barring that, you could always try getting the vaccine in your non-dominant arm so that any pain won’t interfere with your everyday activities.

Any pain is worth it, though: Even if you’ve never gotten the flu before, there’s always a chance you could get it in the future. And getting a flu shot also contributes to herd immunity, helping protect higher-risk populations (like children, older adults, and chronically ill individuals) who often can’t receive the flu vaccine for themselves. Keeping up-to-date on vaccines is one of the easiest ways individuals can contribute to community health.

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