Opioids in the 1930s

Opium smokers in the East End of London, London Illustrated News, 1874

As part of my research for book 4, I’ve been reading up on morphine addiction in the early part of the 20th century. I found out, for example, that Sigmund Freud died of a morphine overdose that was administered by his own doctor in an assisted suicide (Freud had mouth cancer and decided he was done at the age of 83 in 1939).

Addiction to morphine was called the ‘soldiers disease’ as many fighting men came back from the first world war (and second) addicted to the pain killer.

Laudanum (a pill or tincture made from opium and sometimes the addition of saffron, castor, ambergris, musk and nutmeg) was widely used in the 16th century, and well into the 20th.

Although many drugs containing opium were required to be labelled at the beginning of the 20th century, they were also commonly available without a prescription.

My first exposure to an opium den was in Arthur Conan Doyle’s story “The Man with the Twisted Lip,” one of my less favourite Holmes tales. Watson goes to find Holmes in the opium den down a “vile alley” on Upper Swandam Lane. In London in the 1930s, opium dens could be found in and around Pennyfields and the Limehouse Causeway.


From what I’ve read, the description of the seediness and danger around these drug dens were both racially charged and more negative than real. But, any drug den, whether it’s in the 1930s or today, will attract a certain kind of customer, so the danger was probably accurately described. For example:

In a talk at the Docklands Museum on 28th January 2007, Dr. John Seed from Roehampton University explored some of the realities of Chinese life in Limehouse from 1900 – 1940. He showed how public responses to several drug scandals, to interracial marriage, to housing shortages and unemployment, contributed to an enduring myth: the idea of a Chinatown in Limehouse that never really existed. Read more here.

An anti-opium movement sprang up in response, mostly as a method of controlling the populace from “deviant” behaviours, but doctors were still prescribing various opioids as a method of pain control.

Author: Angela Misri

Novelist, Digital Strategist & Journalist http://angelamisri.com

4 thoughts on “Opioids in the 1930s”

  1. I have debilitating severe chronic pain, but I don’t take opiates: they make me violently ill. They give me migraine headaches with a stiff neck, severe nausea and vomiting, and I don’t like the fuzzy-headed, dizzy drunk feeling (I don’t drink alcohol, either). Also, opiates cause respiratory depression, and because I already have Obstructive Sleep Apnea, I don’t need that complication. Moreover, opiates don’t even affect the pain I have, so why would I heap even more suffering atop what I’ve already got? For me to become an addict would be too much work, so it never ceases to amaze me that opiate addiction is such a perennial problem.

    1. So good to hear from you Christine, though on a painful subject. I agree, it’s hard for people like you and I to understand how it happens, but like Rami says in his comment, it’s an epidemic. Sorry to hear about your continuing health issues. Are you able to work?

      1. The pain I have saps my strength because it’s bad in every posture; I can’t even sit very long at my desktop computer. A couple of weeks ago, health insurance finally approved my getting an electric hospital bed. Along with an over-bed table I bought for use with a laptop, I’m hoping the adjustable bed will provide a supported position that will enable me to spend longer periods of time at my writing.

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