Sir. William Brooke O’Shaughnessy - Medical Cannabis Pioneer
By Brian Houlihan
It is widely known that before prohibition was enacted cannabis was available from pharmacies for medicinal purposes. Tinctures and other products were prescribed to treat various ailments. This period roughly occurred between 1840 and the early 1900’s until prohibition begun to be enforced.
Lesser known is that the Limerick born doctor Sir. William Brooke O’Shaughnessy helped introduced cannabis into Western medicine. Although now largely forgotten by history it was O’Shuaghnessy who undertook research in India and subsequently stimulated medical cannabis use and research throughout the West.
O’Shaughnessy also made significant contributions to various other fields of scientific study with many of his innovations still in use. He also played a role in cementing British rule in India by establishing its expansive telegraph communications network and he was later knighted for this work.
William Brooke O’Shaughnessy was born in Limerick in 1809 and it is suggested that from a young age he showed the potential he would later fulfill. He first studied medicine at Trinity in Dublin before transferring to the University of Edinburgh in Scotland from where he graduated in 1829.
The University of Edinburgh was considered one of the best medical schools in the world and it was quite an achievement for O’Shaughnessy, who was barely 18 years old, to be accepted into it. At the university he studied an array of topics like medicine, chemistry, forensic toxicology and anatomy.
Some of cadavers O’Shaughnessy used when studying anatomy under Professor Robert Knox were likely supplied by the infamous grave robbers Burke and Hare.
After his graduation O’Shaughnessy moved to London and established his own forensic toxicology laboratory after he was unable to find work. His laboratory provided chemical analyses of urine, blood, and tissue for doctors, hospitals, and the courts. During this period he also researched possible treatments for cholera and ways of detecting poison.
In 1833 O’Shaughnessy took a job with the East India Company to work in Calcutta as an assistant surgeon. This began his lifetime interest in India. The notorious East India Company effectively ruled India with its private armies between 1757 and 1858.
Like many individuals O’Shaughnessy was part of the ‘brain drain’ from England and Ireland which saw huge numbers seek work in India during this period. One estimate suggests that by 1860 around 30% of Trinity’s engineering graduates had emigrated to India for work.
O’Shaughnessy spent two periods of his life in India. The first was between 1833 and 1841 and the second between 1852 and 1860. It was during his first trip that he researched the medicinal properties of a range of indigenous plants, including opium and cannabis. During his second trip he conducted the work that saw him knighted by Queen Victoria.
In India the therapeutic effects of cannabis became known to O’Shaughnessy from his interactions with indigenous people. Cannabis and other plants had been used medicinally and recreationally in the region for thousands of years.
O’Shaughnessy looked at the contemporary medical literature in the West and found little about the medical properties of cannabis. The only references available primarily focused on its intoxicating effects and O’Shaughnessy even found this information was limited.
By contrast the materials in the region had more information on the medicinal properties. In 1969 Dr. Tod Mikuriya wrote that “In India the use of hemp preparations as a remedy was described before 1000 B.C. In Persia, cannabis was known several centuries before Christ. In Assyria, about 650 B.C., its intoxicating properties were noted.”
O’Shaughnessy also detailed some of the preparations used by indigenous people for cannabis drinks and edibles. He even provides the recipes for some of these in his work. O’Shaughnessy also provides some interesting social commentary and observations about the use of cannabis by locals.
In 1839 O’Shaughnessy noted that “All classes of persons, including the lower Portuguese, or ‘Kala Feringhees,’ and especially their females, consume the drug; that it is a most fascinating in its effects, producing extatic (ecstatic) happiness, a persuasion of high rank, a sensation of flying, voracious appetite, and intense aphrodisiac desire.”
Eager to test the claims made by locals about cannabis O’Shaughnessy undertook a range of experiments. He started his research on animals such as mice, rabbits, and rats. He moved onto human subjects after noting how safe cannabis was. During his initial research O’Shaughnessy noticed that not all species of animals were affected the same by cannabis.
He wrote that carnivorous animals and fish, dogs, cats, swine, vultures and crows “invariably and speedily exhibited the intoxicating influence of the drug”. However graminivorous (grazing) animals such as horses, cows, sheep, goats and monkeys “only experienced trivial effects from any dose that was administered.”
O’Shaughnessy first presented his research to a group of students and scholars at the Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta in 1839. His presentation featured case studies of patients suffering from ailments such as: Cholera, rheumatism, hydrophobia, tetanus, rabies and a 40 day old baby with convulsions.
O’Shaughnessy also released his findings in a publication called: ‘On the preparations of the Indian hemp, or gunjah (Cannabis Indica), their effects on the animal system in health, and their utility in the treatment of tetanus 6 and other convulsive disorders.’
O’Shaughnessy revealed that he had only limited success in treating rheumatism but that noticeable pain relief was provided by the cannabis.
O’Shaughnessy also had little success in treating hydrophobia or cholera with cannabis, but again noted the beneficial calming and pain relief effects from cannabis.
O’Shaughnessy believed that even if cannabis was not a cure for such ailments it would be beneficial as part of a treatment.
O’Shaughnessy was successful in quelling the muscle spasms associated with conditions like tetanus and rabies. We know that many modern medical cannabis patients use cannabis for easing spasticity (spasms and stiffness) associated with conditions like multiple sclerosis, dystonia and motor neuron disease.
The patient with rabies O’Shaughnessy treated sadly died from the condition. However, O’Shaughnessy states that cannabis helped ease their suffering. He wrote that “. .the awful malady (disease) was stripped of its horrors; if not less fatal than before, it was reduced to less than the scale of suffering which precedes death from most ordinary diseases.”
O’Shaughnessy was also able to stop the infant convulsions (febrile seizures) that a 40 day old infant was suffering from. This led O’Shaughnessy to declare that “the profession has gained an anti-convulsive remedy of the greatest value”.
In recent years cannabis has become an accepted medicine to treat conditions like epilepsy which often feature potentially fatal convulsions. Many of the these patients are in fact children, with many families relocating to cannabis friendly locations such as Colorado to avail of such treatment.
O’Shaughnessy also believed that cannabis could potentially be used as an anesthetic and for providing significant pain relief. Much of his research focused on these areas as during the mid-1800’s many doctors and dentists were seeking anesthesia and pain relief medications. In fact many of the advancements in those fields were occurring at the same time as O’Shaughnessy’s research.
O’Shaughnessy also noted the risks associated with cannabis for some patients he treated. He suggested that a peculiar form of delirium “may be occasioned by continual hemp inebriation”. For this reason O’Shaughnessy cautioned fellow doctor’s to start with low doses when administrating cannabis to their patients.
O’Shaughnessy had a unique way of treating patients who had consumed too much cannabis. Patients were administered strong purgatives and an emetic (to cause vomiting) was administered via a blister to the neck. Leeches were also applied to patient’s temples.
His methods were drastic by modern standards to say the least. It also shows that even the greatest minds often still operate by the (now) questionable standards of the times whilst also being innovators in those fields.
O’Shaughnessy continued his research and after returning to England produced two works featuring some of India’s indigenous plants. He released The Bengal Dispensatory in 1842 and The Bengal Pharmacopoeia in 1844. Both publications lead to increased interest into the medicinal properties of certain plants, including cannabis.
When O’Shaughnessy published The Bengal Pharmacopoeia in 1844 the section on cannabis extended to 25 pages. This work has been described by James Mills in the Cannabis Britannica as “the most comprehensive assessment of the properties of cannabis” undertaken at the time.
O’Shaughnessy’s research was subsequently republished in British and European medical journals which lead to an increase in cannabis research. Soon others across Europe and the globe were undertaking research into the plant and producing their own findings and products.
O’Shaughnessy returned to England in 1841 and brought back not only his research but also quantities of cannabis specimens and seeds. Cannabis was provided to groups like the Royal Pharmaceutical Society for research purposes.
Specimens of cannabis plants and seeds were provided to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew in London and others.
One of the people O’Shaughnessy met on his return to London was the pharmacist Peter Squire. It was Peter Squire, working in tandem with O’Shaughnessy, who made cannabis tinctures which were available at local pharmacies.
Sir. Russell Reynolds, the personal physician to Queen Victoria, was among those who promoted cannabis’s medical use after reading O’Shaughnessy’s research. It is claimed that Sir. Russel Reynolds subsequently prescribed cannabis to Queen Victoria for menstrual pains.
It should be noted that others were also researching the medicinal properties of cannabis around the same time as O’Shaughnessy. However, O’Shaughnessy’s research had a greater impact on the field and thus he is often wrongly perceived as the only ‘Westerner’ researching cannabis at the time.
O’Shaughnessy’s impact on cannabis research is evident by the fact that between 1840 and 1900 over 100 articles appeared in scientific journals describing the medical properties of cannabis. A stark contrast to the period before that. As noted by Dr. Tod Mikuriya in his 1969 article ‘Marijuana in Medicine’ there was a “paucity of references to hemp’s intoxicating properties in the lay and medical literature of Europe before the 1800s”.
In fact O’Shaughnessy is still impacting on cannabis research to this day. It is suggested that when Dr. Tod Mikuriya reprinted O’Shaughnessy’s paper as the lead article in Marijuana: Medical Papers 1839–1972 (published in 1973) it helped reinvigorated the modern day medical interest in cannabis.
Dr. Tod Mikuriya’s publication, and the interest it caused, lead to more research into cannabis in the last century. This lead to some activists calling Dr. Mikuriya the grandfather of medical cannabis movement in the US’.
Perhaps by this logic we can call O’Shaughnessy the grandfather of all medical cannabis research.
It is testament to O’Shaughnessy’s ability as a scientist that he had such a profound impact on cannabis research. James Mills, the author of the Cannabis Britannica, wrote he wasn’t surprised that O’Shaughnessy was perhaps the first doctor “to find out for himself exactly what the impact of cannabis substances was rather than to rely on hearsay or on recycled versions of other writers’ compilations”.
A Lancet review in 1840 of O’Shaughnessy’s work on cannabis is also testament of his character and ability. It stated that “The labours of Dr O’Shaughnessy, as a scientific chemist, are already known in the most favourable manner to our readers; but unlike the greater number of chemists, he combines practice with theory and directs his scientific discoveries to the advancement of medicine as a healing art.”
Alongside his work with cannabis O’Shaughnessy should also be remembered for other amazing feats.
Some commentators have argued his medical cannabis work while significant is only a minor accomplishment in a lifetime of diverse work and achievements.
So it is worth looking at some of his other feats.
O’Shaughnessy conducted research into telegraph communications and even built his own network in 1837 to show the technology worked. In 1852 he was appointed the Director-General of Telegraphs in India. Within six months of undertaking work the telegraph network stretched for 800 miles. The network would eventually stretch to over 11000 miles. In 1856 O’Shaughnessy was knighted by Queen Victoria for this work.
The network later proved key to British rule in India and was a significant factor in suppressing the Indian uprising which occurred between May 1857 and July 1859.
O’Shaughnessy was also a professor of chemistry and professor of natural philosophy at the medical college in Calcutta for a period. He also climbed the medical ranks in India to become a surgeon major in 1861.
During his life O’Shaughnessy undertook research into areas such as pharmacology, chemistry, toxicology, drug clinical trials, science education, and underwater engineering. His cholera research led to some of the first experiments in treatments by intravenous injection, a precursor to the modern day IV drips.
O’Shaughnessy researched the refinement of gold and this lead to him briefly working for the Indian Mint. He was in charge of attempts to unify India’s dozens of different currencies with standard coinage. However his attempts appear to have largely failed.
His broad scientific work, and much more, contribute to the claims that O’Shaugnessy was one of the greatest minds of his generation.
While O’Shaughnessy has largely been forgotten, his impact on scientific research and advancements lives on almost 130 years after his death.
Little is known about the final two decades of O’Shaughnessy’s life. We know he returned to Britain in 1860 and retired the following year. But little more is known beyond that up until his death in 1889.
In 1861 he legally changed his name to William O’Shaughnessy Brooke. It is suggested this change was to benefit from some family inheritance. However, this variation of his name is not always seen in the literature about him, much like the use of Sir before his name.
When O’Shaughnessy died in 1889 he left behind an inspiring legacy. His contributions to medical cannabis and other scientific fields cannot be downplayed. Yet like many of great minds that have existed he is largely unknown.
In recent years the emergence of the internet and online communities has lead to more learning about O’Shaughnessy’s various accomplishments. Limerick comedians Rubber Bandits are among his modern day admirers.
Almost 180 years after his groundbreaking research perhaps the best tribute we could pay O’Shaughnessy would be the regulation of cannabis. Not only could individuals access cannabis products for medicinal purposes but it would also open up and encourage more cannabis research.
Perhaps by taking a scientific approach like O’Shaughnessy did in the 1800s we can unlock even more medical potentials for cannabis.
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