Taking the edge off in colonial Milton: chloroform and laudanum use.

A couple of weeks ago we wrote about Dr. Weber and reports of his use of drugs and alcohol to ease the pain of his wife’s passing. The rather gossipy reporting of this in the Bruce Herald reflects social ideas at the time. The temperance movement was gaining traction in New Zealand, indeed Dr. Weber himself at one point gave a talk organised by the Tokomairiro Total Abstinence Society in Milton (though from its title we’d guess he was arguing against temperance).

Advertisement for a Public Lecture on alcohol (Bruce Herald, Volume VI, Issue 361, 29th March 1871). Accessed via the National Library of New Zealand, Papers Past (https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/bruce-herald/1871/3/29/4)

Interestingly, while overuse of alcohol was frowned upon (particularly in women), the use of addictive or dangerous drugs for medicinal purposes was relatively commonplace. In the list of drugs used by Dr. Weber to ease his psychological and physical pain we find both chloroform and laudanum, both of which were routinely supplied by chemists in Milton during the early colonial period.

Chloroform was mostly used by medical professionals to anesthetise patients during surgery or dental extraction. It was a controversial method, deaths linked to heart failure while under chloroform were commonly reported in New Zealand, and newspapers often argued over the safety of the method.

Chloroform-related deaths were common in the colony (Otago Daily Times, Issue 9880, 27th October 1893). Accessed via the National Library of New Zealand, Papers Past.

A letter written to the British Medical Journal in October 1894 asks when it will be time to “discard the lethal chloroform and thus put an end to the human sacrifice that is weekly offered…” (J McNamara, 1894). Despite this, it remained commonly used until the advent of cocaine, a drug considered to be much ‘safer’, as the patient was left without pain but still conscious.

Chloroform’s use in tinctures, sleeping draughts and other products, however, was considered less dangerous. Indeed, it was an element of daily life for some, and certainly seems to be how Dr Weber eased his sleeplessness in the nights prior to his death.

Dr. Weber supplemented his chloroform with laudanum, a commonly-prescribed form of opiate that was readily available in colonial Otago. It was prescribed for diverse issues; ranging from sleeplessness to menstrual cramps, and was an important component of many ‘patent medicines’ of the time. These were unregulated concoctions patented by the various chemists for the colonist’s ills, generally claiming to cure diverse complaints with just one tonic.

The sale of unregulated patent medicines containing various addictive or toxic substances was common in the colony. This advertisement for Dunedin product “Loasby’s Wahoo” highlights the cure-all properties that many boasted of (collection of Toitū Otago Settlers Museum, permission of Toitū Otago Settlers Museum must be obtained before any re-use of this image).

The problems of opiate-containing medicines were many and varied. For example, Otago resident Janet Hesketh was committed to Seacliff asylum due to laudanum- induced hallucinations following its prescription for her menstrual flow, and this was not an isolated occurrence (Stock and Brickle, 2013).  Laudanum was even commonly given in small doses to children to stop them fussing, with opium known as “quietness” for this reason. It’s no surprise that overdoses like Dr. Weber’s were relatively common, especially in infants.

The addictive nature of the opium in tonics also resulted in issues. Addicts were nicknamed “chlorodyne fiends”, chlorodyne being one of the main tonics containing laudanum available in the colony.

On the dangers of chlorodyne, a form of tonic laudanum. Southland Times Issue 9715, 2nd January 1888. Accessed via the National Library of New Zealand, Papers Past.

Despite some attempts to regulate the sale of the drugs, they remained a favourite of local pharmacies and easily accessible until the early 1900s, when they were restricted by the Dangerous Drugs Act of 1927.

Charlotte King

References and more information:

Brickell, Chris and Paul V. Stock. ‘Nature’s good for you: Sir Truby King, Seacliff Asylum, and the greening of health care in New Zealand,1889–1922.’ Health & Place. 22 (2013): pp.107–114. p.108.

Hardy, Susan, and Corones, Anthony (2006), “Colonising the past? History, Medicine and Reality Television,” Health and History, 8 (2).

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