Pharmakeus Introduction to Superfluity

Sertürner, Ethylene, Etymology of Pharmakon/Pharmakeus

The hydrocarbon C2H4 is the basic building block for a wide range of chemicals, and by raw tonnage its production surpasses all other organic compounds. Ethylene (as 85% Ethylene / 15% oxygen) was used as an anesthetic gas for surgical procedures in limited capacities (more on this in a future post). In 2002, a paper was published with the notion that the ancient delphic oracle was intoxicated and came under a spell with a gaseous substance none other than ethylene. The team that came up with the hypothesis was an multidisciplinary team of a toxicologist, anthropologist and geologist

C2H4 Ethylene. PubChem. Chemspider.

It was Plutarch who wrote of the existence of vapors being emitted from fissures in the ground in the adyton of the Delphic temple; vapors that were like a breeze of the “sweetest and most expensive perfumes”. Whether or not our ancient Pythia was intoxicated by ethylene or any other gas is beside the point, although somehow Plutarch, Pythia, and psychedelics are all tangentially related within the nexus that we are hoping to lay out (eventually? ever?)

However, before we can speak about phenylethylamines and anesthetic gases — a word about Pharmakon.

In La Dissemination by Jacques Derrida I came across a chapter titled “Plato’s Pharmacy” in which Derrida wrestles with the translation of the Greek “pharmakon” in Plato’s Phaedrus. Orithyia was the virgin daughter of Erechtheus who, according to legend, was swept away and taken by Boreas (northern wind). Socrates instead hints at a more rational explanation, positing that she died while playing with Pharmacia. Derrida notes “Pharmacia (Pharmakeia) is also a common noun signifying the administration of the pharmakon, the drug: the medicine and/or poison.” Perhaps the virgin princess was not taken to Hyperborea but instead taken by the pharmakon, the poison. The paradoxical nature of having to translate “pharmakon” pertains not just to the matters of language but to theme that will occur through our pharmacological discussion; pharmakon is at the same time a drug and a poison. A favorite adage from Paracelsus: All things are poison and nothing is without poison; only the dose makes a poison. In Derrida neither pharmacology nor chemistry come into contact with philosophy at any point. But what little Derrida pertains to modern pharmacology, some of his words are apropos. Derrida writes,

This pharmakon, this ‘medicine’, this philter, which acts as both remedy and poison, already introduces itself into the body of the discourse with all its ambivalence. This charm, this spellbinding virtue, this power of fascination, can be — alternatively or simultaneously — beneficent or maleficent […] Operating through seduction, the pharmakon makes one stray from one’s general, natural, habitual paths and laws.

And though the “drug” Derrida is eventually referring to is the intoxication of writing, a drug that Socrates did not partake. Although the same can be said of not only the intoxication from substances but also the intoxication from the fascination of these substances. The conquest to understand even a fraction of all that is involved in what is meant as “drugs” is a long journey that

Socrates is often referred to as the pharmakeus which (as we have seen) can mean both/either the giver of drugs or poisons — and at the same time it can itself refer to the drug/poison that is given.

Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner

In 1804 Napoleon crowned himself as Emperor of the French. All of the Western world turned towards Notre-Dame as the thief of Europe instantiated his empire in one of the grandest acts of history. In that same year, an unknown German pharmacist from Paderborn came upon something miraculous. Napoleon’s single act shook the whole continent and his coronation has been immortalized in David’s painting, while our dear German pharmacist has been all but forgotten by the historical record; you would be hard pressed to find a single person who has not heard the name Napoleon but you would not have to go far to find an individual who does not recognize the name Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner who in 1804 discovered morphine. Sertürner is so foreign to the historical record that we cannot even be certain whether or not his discovery of morphine was in 1804 or 1805. Since so little is known about him and his name so little mentioned, let’s have a short consideration this forgotten German Pharmacist, Sertürner.The modern meaning of the word “Pharmacist” does not accurately or entirely explain Sertürner and his work, although Sertürner’s isolation of morphine from opium was a tremendous step for phytochemistry his work would involve a large range of topics from galvanism, the alkali nature of “potash” or potassium hydroxide, the nature of light, and a variety of issues in physical/medicinal chemistry. He would conduct experiments to improve drinking water, to break apart Chlorine (which was thought to be a chemical compound at the time); he wrote treatises on ether, sulphuric acid, mummification and he also predicted that cholera was caused by a living carrier organism during the major cholera epidemic that reached Berlin in 1831 killing Hegel. Now that I have somehow found a way to mention Hegel in this exposition, we have really come too far off track.

Sertürner’s scientific achievements, even his monumental “discovery” i.e. isolation of morphine, were received with no fanfare let alone much attention. Sertürner first published his finding of opium in the Journal der Pharmacie as “Säure im Opium” in 1805 along with a longer article published later in the same year, in the same journal. Both of these went almost completely unnoticed. He tried to garner some attention to morphine 6 years later in 1811 and again failed. 6 years after that, in 1817, he published in the journal Annalen der Physik an article titled “Ueber das Morphium, eine neue salzfähige Grundlage, und die Mekonsäure als Hauptbestandteil des Opiums” which gained the attention of a small number of physicians and researchers in France along with the attention of Goethe who recommended Sertürner to the University of Jena, where he was awarded an honorary Doctorate in Philosophy—several other universities would bequeath honors and awards to him. In 1831 Sertürner would be awarded the Montyon Prize in France, a sort of forerunner of the Nobel prize. Throughout all of this research and activity, Sertürner still operated the city pharmacy in Hamerlin although his wife dutifully helped with the day to day activities (peddling addictive drugs to the masses must be good for repeat business).

Sertürner received some recognition in his day, but in the end he produced 2 major publications—a 600 page dissertation on physical chemistry and a 3 volume set focused on the chemical elements—and he isolated the first and most important alkaloid from a plant. Sertürner not only isolated morphium (named from Morpheus) but predicted that other plants contain pharmacologically important alkaloids that can also be isolated. It is likely that this notion was well understood by a French pharmacist, Joseph Caventou who immediately isolated Emetine in 1817 and then Strychnine in 1818, Brucine in 1819, Quinine in 1820, and notably Caffeine in 1821 along with both Veratrine (a neurotoxin that disrupts Ca2+) and Colchicine (a unique medication that is mildly toxic but that is still used to treat gout, inflammation of the pericardium, and various other disorders) isolated in 1823. Nicotine (1828) and Cocaine (1855) would be isolated by German pharmacists/chemists. Codeine would be isolated in 1832 by a French pharmacist working in Paris, Pierre Robiquet. Robiquet was reportedly working on new methods of morphine extraction and isolation when he found a reliable process by which to isolate codeine which for various reasons became extremely popular in Paris, and then throughout France and the rest of Europe.

Sertürner’s morphium taken orally is rather ineffective as the oral bioavailability of morphine is about 20–35%. Codeine is a much weaker analgesic than morphine, but its bioavailability is at least 90% making it a highly effective antidiarrheal and antitussive medicine. Codeine’s use in these capacities along with its effective analgesic properties for daily and common pains such as headaches, menstrual cramps, and back pain still make codeine a weak opiate albeit safe and with a high therapeutic index. Codeine’s weakness also lends it to being much less addictive in a time when it was nearly entirely unregulated and increasingly available especially in urban European environments. Raw opium, as you know contains both morphine and codeine both of which are crucially important in a wide variety of therapeutic and recreational modalities.

Opium Camphorated United States Pharmacopeia (USP)

Additionally, opium contains trace amounts of thebaine and papaverine. Thebaine itself is of little value either therapeutically, recreationally or otherwise however thebaine will be crucially important later in the story in the production of a wide variety of colors in the rainbow of semi-synthetic opioid drugs. A metabolite of thebaine, opravine will lead us into long and numerous articles concerning the Bentley compounds. I will go ahead and say now that much of this blog will likely be devoted to a sort of multi-disciplinary consideration of the chemical beauty and pharmacological wonderment about the common opioid drugs but even more so the obscure analgesics that are only found deep within the storehouses of chemistry and veiled behind latent history. I digress, although the story is long it will be told in some form or another with errors from my imperfect history and subpar chemistry—I accept corrections and admonishments for both.

Back to our opium alkaloids: again, thebaine is important mainly for the synthesis of other opioids and papaverine is useful as a vasodilator and antispasmodic agent used in various cardiovascular disorders and even erectile disfunction! While papaverine might be useful for ED, morphine and codeine (along with most opiates) will actually inhibit ejactulation thus prolonging the sexual act significantly. Opium contains at least another 20 alkaloids which are mostly unimportant to this discussion. However, what has so far been entirely left out is the importance of the poppy itself. Opium is derived traditionally from papaver somniferum, although there are various similar species such as papaver bracteatum and papaver orientale which are important in opioid cultivation.

“Tears” of papaver somniferum (poppy tears, lachryma papaveris) is more properly known as “latex” and is the part of the plant highest in opiate alkaloids.

The “tears” of papaver somniferum album was prescribed by Hippocrates (c. 460–370 BC) in a drink mixed with the seeds of urtica dioica (nettle) for pain, restlessness, sleeplessness. Socrates may have consumed the hemlock along with a splash of opium “juices”.

The exact botany of the papaver plant is something better left to Michael Pollan or Jim Hogshire or even specialist botanists. However, much misinformation and disinformation exists concerning the papaver somniferum and the poppy plant in general.

Opium War I

Opium cultivation and consumption has long existed in human society without major incident, within Sertürner’s time the so called first Opium War was fought. The British East India Company had gained control of Bengal and vast swaths of land in Northern India, thus winning control of cash crop production by 1769.

The EIC forced farmers to uproot their rice crop for tea, indigo and opium which arguably (intentionally) caused the deaths of at least 10 million Bengalis and the displacement of millions more, effectively clearing out 30–40% of the population of Gangetic plain. Widespread chaos, violence and migration ensued while the EIC established monopolies in grain production while simultaneously punitively taxing the location population. Profits from opium and indigo began to counteract the massive trade imbalance held by the EIC to the Qing Dynasty, however it was not enough and Parliament passed the Tea Act which eventually sparked a series of provocations leading to the American Revolutionary Wars. The EIC employed an intricate system of smuggling. With their total monopoly of opium production in Bengal, they would auction the opium to traders and traffickers that would be obligated to bring the opium via multiple routes from Culcutta to China. Despite the ban in China, consumption increased exponentially and Chinese ships loaded with hundreds of chests of opium raced from Lintin island up the Pearl river.

The exploitation of Chinese law through the rampant illegal trade in Guangzhou led the empire to stabilize the situation with the appointment of Lin Zexu who famously wrote Queen Victoria an open letter that lays out in moralistic, Confucian language the hypocrisy of selling opium en masse to the Chinese while the same Bengal opium is illegal to bring to London. His letter states that while China provides Britain with porcelain, silk, and endless amounts of tea, Britain only provides the “poison” of addictive, smokable Bengali sticky-putty opium. In reality, the Chinese obstinately only accepted silver for their trade and thus the British government and EIC were forced to exchange their gold for silver with other European powers. The letter never reached the queen before the skirmishes broke out in 1839, and soon a full scale war ensued as commissioner Lin had 20,283 chests of opium seized and gathered at Chaunbi Island (approx. 1.35million kg of raw opium).

Destruction of opium at Humen, June 1839.

The opium was poured together in stone pits, mixed with salt, lime, and sea water. One addict snuck into the area and seized several bags of opium, was caught, and beheaded without ceremony. The opium was destroyed in June 1839 and the process of destruction took just over 3 weeks. An American Missionary witnessed the process and recorded his observations in one of his many volumes concerning sinology The Chinese Repository specifically in Volume 8. The letter didn’t reach the Queen before skirmishes broke out and the British sailed up the river and commenced with an immense naval attack sailing up the Yangtze and blocking tax and trade ships.

Opium War Interactive Map (via wiki)

In one of the most obscure wars of this century the Sikh Empire commanded by Zorawar Kahluria invaded Tibet attacking through the Himalayas. The Qing dynasty was already strained on various fronts, and barely managed to rout the overextended Sikh and Dogra army in the inhospitable winter of 1841 during weeks of inhospitable blizzards. The Sikh general was pierced by a lance through the chest, pulled from his horse, and beheaded. The Sino-Sikh war ended in a stalemate before the Opium war concluded but this is probably as embarrassingly divergent as it can get. The importance of the first opium war is a complex matter, in fact it could even be argued that its designation is a misnomer.

For the Chinese population and the Qing rulers the war had only so much to do with opium as with Sovereignty. For the British, the war had even less to do with opiates and chiefly involved such matters as trade balances and company profits. With the Treaty of Nanjing marking the conclusion of the war, it would become even more apparent that this war had nearly nothing to do with opium. The treaty, and successive stipulations, did not reverse the Qing ban of opium, nor did it explicitly guarantee the free trade of opium. China was forced to open ports and cede Hong Kong Island among other concessions that included massive reparations for the opium destroyed by Lin and the cost of the war. All in all, the first war had very few negative consequences for the EIC or the British who had suffered casualties of less than 100. The yearly imports of Opium steadily increased after the war, while domestic production in China would stagger. EIC records indicate that opium was still being sold during the years of the war, and overall the company showed a much lower profit ratio during 1838–42.

Sertürner died in 1841 only 1 year before the conclusion of the first Opium War. A war that he had nothing to do with, and a war that has almost nothing to do with the topics of this blog. Perhaps I can better mesh out some sociological notions from the Opium Wars at a later date. But at this point we can try to forget I ever wasted this many words on the topic and move onwards to more relevant, and interesting use of words.

Before that, here is the full text of the letter that was written by Lin Zexu to the “Ruler of England”.

Letter to the English Ruler (Taken from Sources of East Asian Tradition, Vol. 2: The Modern Period by William Theodore de Bary pg.97–99)

A communication: magnificently our great Emperor soothes and pacifies China and the foreign countries, regarding all with the same kindness. If there is profit, then he shares it with the peoples of the world; if there is harm, then he removes it on behalf of the world. This is because he takes the mind of heaven and earth as his mind.

The kings of your honorable country by a tradition handed down from generation to generation have always been noted for their politeness and submissiveness. We have read your successive tributary memorials saying, “In general our countrymen who go to trade in China have always received His Majesty the Emperor’s gracious treatment and equal justice.” and so on. Privately we are delighted with the way in which the honorable rulers of your country deeply understand the grand principles and are grateful for the Celestial grace. For this reason the Celestial Court in soothing those from afar has redoubled its polite and kind treatment. The profit from trade has been enjoyed by them continuously for two hundred years. This is the source from which your country has become known for its wealth.

But after a long period of commercial intercourse, there appear among the crowd of barbarians both good persons and bad, unevenly. Consequently there are those who smuggle opium to seduce the Chinese people and so cause the spread of the poison to all provinces. Such persons who only care to profit themselves, and disregard their harm to others, are not tolerated by the laws of heaven and are unanimously hated by human beings. His Majesty the Emperor, upon hearing of this, is in a towering rage. He has especially sent me, his commissioner, to come to Kwangtung [Guangdong], and together with the governor-general and governor jointly to investigate and settle this matter.

All those people in China who sell opium or smoke opium should receive the death penalty. We trace the crime of those barbarians who through the years have been selling opium, then the deep harm they have wrought and the great profit they have usurped should fundamentally justify their execution according to law. We take into to consideration, however, the fact that the various barbarians have still known how to repent their crimes and return to their allegiance to us by taking the 20,183 chests of opium from their storeships and petitioning us, through their consular officer [superintendent of trade], Elliot, to receive it. It has been entirely destroyed and this has been faithfully reported to the Throne in several memorials by this commissioner and his colleagues.

Fortunately we have received a specially extended favor Born His Majesty the Emperor, who considers that for those who voluntarily surrender there are still some circumstances to palliate their crime, and so for the time being he has magnanimously excused them from punishment. But as for those who again violate the opium prohibition, it is difficult for the law to pardon them repeatedly. Having established new regulations, we presume that the ruler of your honorable country, who takes delight in our culture and whose disposition is inclined towards us, must be able to instruct the various barbarians to observe the law with care. It is only necessary to explain to them the advantages and advantages and then they will know that the legal code of the Celestial Court must be absolutely obeyed with awe.

We find your country is sixty or seventy thousand li [three li make one mile, ordinarily] from China Yet there are barbarian ships that strive to come here for trade for the purpose of making a great profit. The wealth of China is used to profit the barbarians. That is to say, the great profit made by barbarians is all taken from the rightful share of China. By what right do they then in return use the poisonous drug to injure the Chinese people? Even though the barbarians may not necessarily intend to do us harm, yet in coveting profit to an extreme, they have no regard for injuring others. Let us ask, where is your conscience? I have heard that the smoking of opium is very strictly forbidden by your country; that is because the harm caused by opium is clearly understood. Since it is not permitted to do harm to your own country, then even less should you let it be passed on to the harm of other countries — how much less to China! Of all that China exports to foreign countries, there is not a single thing which is not beneficial to people: they are of benefit when eaten, or of benefit when used, or of benefit when resold: all are beneficial. Is there a single article from China which has done any harm to foreign countries? Take tea and rhubarb, for example; the foreign countries cannot get along for a single day without them. If China cuts off these benefits with no sympathy for those who are to suffer, then what can the barbarians rely upon to keep themselves alive? Moreover the woolens, camlets, and longells [i.e., textiles] of foreign countries cannot be woven unless they obtain Chinese silk. If China, again, cuts off this beneficial export, what profit can the barbarians expect to make? As for other foodstuffs, beginning with candy, ginger, cinnamon, and so forth, and articles for use, beginning with silk, satin, chinaware, and so on, all the things that must be had by foreign countries are innumerable. On the other hand, articles coming from the outside to China can only be used as toys. We can take them or get along without them. Since they are not needed by China, what difficulty would there be if we closed our the frontier and stopped the trade? Nevertheless, our Celestial Court lets tea, silk, and other goods be shipped without limit and circulated everywhere without begrudging it in the slightest. This is for no other reason but to share the benefit with the people of the whole world. The goods from China carried away by your country not only supply your own consumption and use, but also can be divided up and sold to other countries, producing a triple profit. Even if you do not sell opium, you still have this threefold profit. How can you bear to go further, selling products injurious to others in order to fulfill your insatiable desire?

Suppose there were people from another country who carried opium for sale to England and seduced your people into buying and smoking it; certainly your honorable ruler would deeply hate it and be bitterly aroused. We have heard heretofore that your honorable ruler is kind and benevolent. Naturally you would not wish to give unto others what you yourself do not want. We have also heard that the ships coming to Canton have all had regulations promulgated and given to them in which it is stated that it is not permitted to carry contraband goods. This indicates that the administrative orders of your honorable rule have been originally strict and clear. Only because the trading ships are numerous, heretofore perhaps they have not been examined with care. Now after this communication has been dispatched and you have clearly understood the strictness of the prohibitory laws of the Celestial Court, certainly you will not let your subjects dare again to violate the law.

We have further learned that in London, the capital of your honorable rule, and in Scotland, Ireland, and other places, originally no opium has been produced. Only in several places of India under your control such as Bengal, Madras, Bombay, Patna, Benares, and Malwa has opium been planted from hill to hill, and ponds have been opened for its manufacture. For months and years work is continued in order to accumulate the poison. The obnoxious odor ascends, irritating heaven and frightening the spirits. Indeed you, O King, can eradicate the opium plant in these places, hoe over the fields entirely, and sow in its stead the five grains [millet, barley, wheat, etc.]. Anyone who dares again attempt to plant and manufacture opium should be severely punished. This will really be a great, benevolent government policy that will increase the common weal and get rid of evil. For this, Heaven must support you and the spirits must bring you good fortune, prolonging your old age and extending your descendants. All will depend on this act.

As for the barbarian merchants who come to China, their food and drink and habitation, all received by the gracious favor of our Celestial Court. Their accumulated wealth is all benefit given with pleasure by our Celestial Court. They spend rather few days in their own country but more time in Canton. To digest clearly the legal penalties as an aid to instruction has been a valid principle in all ages. Suppose a man of another country comes to England to trade, he still has to obey the English laws; how much more should he obey in China the laws of the Celestial Dynasty?

Now we have set up regulations governing the Chinese people. He who sells opium shall receive the death penalty and he who smokes it also the death penalty. Now consider this: if the barbarians do not bring opium, then how can the Chinese people resell it, and how can they smoke it? The fact is that the wicked barbarians beguile the Chinese people into a death trap. How then can we grant life only to these barbarians? He who takes the life of even one person still has to atone for it with his own life; yet is the harm done by opium limited to the taking of one life only? Therefore in the new regulations, in regard to those barbarians who bring opium to China, the penalty is fixed at decapitation or strangulation. This is what is called getting rid a harmful thing on behalf of mankind.

Moreover we have found that in the middle of the second month of this year [April 9] Consul [Superintendent] Elliot of your nation, because the opium prohibition law was very stern and severe, petitioned for an extension of the time limit. He requested an extension of five months for India and its adjacent harbors and related territories, and ten months for England proper, after which they would act in conformity with the new regulations. Now we, the commissioner and others, have memorialized and have received the extraordinary Celestial grace of His Majesty the Emperor, who has redoubled his consideration and compassion. All those who from the period of the coming one year (from England) or six months (from India) bring opium to China by mistake, but who voluntarily confess and completely surrender their opium, shall be exempt from their punishment. After this limit of time, if there are still those who bring opium to China then they will plainly have committed a willful violation and shall at once be executed according to law, with absolutely no clemency or pardon. This may be called the height of kindness and the perfection of justice.

Our Celestial Dynasty rules over and supervises the myriad states, and surely possesses unfathomable spiritual dignity. Yet the Emperor cannot bear to execute people without having first tried to reform them by instruction. Therefore he especially promulgates these fixed regulations. The barbarian merchants of your country, if they wish to do business for a prolonged period, are required to obey our statues respectfully and to cut off permanently the source of opium. They must by no means try to test the effectiveness of the law with their lives. May you, O King, check your wicked and sift your wicked people before they come to China, in order to guarantee the peace of your nation, to show further the sincerity of your politeness and submissiveness, and to let the two countries enjoy together the blessings of peace How fortunate, how fortunate indeed! After receiving this dispatch will you immediately give us a prompt reply regarding the details and circumstances of your cutting off the opium traffic. Be sure not to put this off. The above is what has to be communicated.

Sources and further reading:

Opium Made Easy by Michael Pollan

Letter of Advice to Queen Victoria.

Link here:

De Bary:

Ethylene: — “An interdisciplinary team of scientists—including an archeologist, a geologist, a chemist, and a toxicologist—has argued that ethylene intoxication was the probable cause of the High Priestess of Delphi’s divinatory (mantic) trances. The claim that the High Priestess of Delphi entered a mantic state because of ethylene intoxication enjoyed widespread reception in specialist academic journals, science magazines, and newspapers. This article uses a similar interdisciplinary approach to show that this hypothesis is implausible since it is based on problematic scientific and textual evidence, as well as a fallacious argument. The main issue raised by this counterargument is not that a particular scientific hypothesis or conjecture turned out to be false. (This is expected in scientific investigation.) Rather, the main issue is that it was a positivist disposition that originally led readers to associate the evidence presented in such a way that it seemed to point to the conclusion, even when the evidence did not support the conclusion. We conclude by observing that positivist dispositions can lead to the acceptance of claims because they have a scientific form, not because they are grounded in robust evidence and sound argument.”

Ethylene toxicology data network:

Original Greek of Plutarch:

Paracelsus quote: — ‘Alle Ding sind Gift und nichts ohn’ Gift; allein die Dosis macht, das ein Ding kein

Chinese Repository Scans:

F. W. Sertürner und die Entdeckung des Morphins — 200 Jahre Schmerztherapie mit Opioiden (Thieme-Connect) I have access to the full article, but it is unfortunately entirely in German. Here is the translation of the abstract into English: “Since many centuries mankind has been aware of the poppy (papaver somniferum) and has known its product opium as an analgesic drug. Until the beginning of the 19th century its compounds were not known, making it almost impossible to apply the substance in exact doses. 1803/04, Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner (1783 — 1841) succeeded in isolating a crystalline substance from opium in the test tube, which he called morphium. In animals and in man he was able to prove that this new compound he had discovered was the principium somniferum of opium. He isolated morphine, the first pure opioid available for calculated pain therapy with one defined compound. Moreover, he laid the foundations of a new class of pharmaceutical drugs, the alkaloids.”

Conceptual Change in an Empirical Science: The Discovery of the First Alkaloids.

John E. Lesch

Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences, Vol. 11, No. 2 (1981), pp. 305–328

Published by: University of California Press

Article Stable URL:

Friedrich Wilhelm Sertürner and the Discovery of Morphine.

Rudolf Schmitz

Pharmacy in History, Vol. 27, No. 2 (1985), pp. 61–74

Published by: American Institute of the History of Pharmacy

Article Stable URL: