The Forbidden Game
THE INVESTIGATIONS OF MEN SUCH AS MOREAU AND O'SHAUGHNESSY reflected
a growing interest in pharmacology during the century, stemming
from the results of the research of Davy, Priestley and Lavoisier,
towards the end of the century before. Their discoveries had begun
to elevate chemistry to the status of an exact science; and pharmacologists
had naturally begun to look forward to the day when their branch
of the faculty would share in the distinction.
For a while it looked as if their ambition was going to be realised.
One by one, plant drugs began to deliver up their secretsthe
alkalis which, it was assumed, constituted the essential drug
element. Morphine was derived from opium in 1803, and other similar
discoveries followed: caffeine, quinine, nicotine. More reliable
evidence began to be available, too, about the purposes for which
drugs were used throughout the world; and it became possible to
investigate the subject not, as before, primarily from the standpoint
of the botanist or the chemist, but with a view to assessing the
role of drugs in society. And the first serious attempt at a general
survey was made by James Johnston in his Chemistry of Common
Life, which was published in 1854.
Johnston, who was Professor of Chemistry at the University of
Durham, had the breadth of outlook of a Benjamin Franklin or a
Humphry Davy; he was interested in chemistry not for its own sake,
but for what it provided for mankind. He was not thinking in terms
simply of the chemical processes by which bread, or wine, were
provided, but of what gave bread its flavour, and wine its bouquet.
How significant he felt drugs were can be gauged by the fact that
he devoted almost half the book to them; a chapter each to tea
and coffee; two chapters to alcoholic liquors; and no fewer than
eight chapters to 'the narcotics we indulge in', ranging from
tobacco to deadly nightshade.
Johnston was disturbed by what he felt was the irrational prejudice
against the use of narcotics of any kind, reflected in the efforts
that had been made in countries all over the world to suppress
them. It was absurd, he argued, to think of them as strange and
sinister, considering the vast number of people who regularly
took them. Precise estimates of the number of drug-takers were
impossible to come by; but tobacco, he estimated, was used by
800 million people; opium by 400 million; Indian hemp by 200 300
million; betel by 100 million; and coca by 10 million.
No nation so ancient but had its narcotic soother from the most
distant times; none so remote and isolated but has found within
its own borders a pain-allayer and care-dispeller of native growth;
none so savage which instinct has not led to seek for, and successfully
to employ, this form of physiological indulgence. The craving
for such indulgence, and the habit of gratifying it, are little
less universal than the desire for, and the practice of, consuming
the necessary materials of our common food.
Nor was it any more reprehensible; on the contrary, Johnston argued,
man's recognition of the value of narcotics should be considered
as forming 'one of the most wonderful chapters in his entire history'.
In the first of the three stages of that history, man had found
how to provide for his material needs'beef and bread'. In the
second, he had sought ways to 'assuage the cares of his mind and
banish uneasy reflections', which he did with the help of alcoholic
beverages. And in the third, his object was
to multiply his enjoyments, intellectual and animal, and for the
time to exalt them. This he attains by the aid of narcotics. And
of these narcotics, again, it is remarkable that almost every
country or tribe has its own, either aboriginal or imported; so
that the universal instinct of the race has led, somehow or other,
to the universal supply of this want or craving also.
Johnston cited tea and coffee as examples. Tea, in particular,
could be a dangerous drug; 'green tea, when taken very strong,
acts very powerfully on some constitutions producing nervous tremblings
and other distressing symptoms, acting as a narcotic, and in inferior
animals even producing paralysis'. But men had learned to use
it more discreetly, so that 'it exhilarates without sensibly intoxicating'.
Even the poorest took it, preferring the 'luxury' of a cup of
tea to an extra potato or a larger loafa choice which Johnston
wholeheartedly approved; 'he will probably live as long under
the one regimen as the other; and while he does live, he will
both be less miserable in mind, and will show more blood and spirit
in the face of difficulties, than if he had denied himself this
It was not the chemical properties of the plantJohnston arguedbut
the uses to which man put it, that mattered; a point which comes
across even more forcibly when his book is read today, as many
of the plants which he included are no longer considered to be
drugs. The English beer drinker esteems hops for imparting flavour;
to Johnston, the hop was 'the English narcotic', justly celebrated
as a sleep inducer, and 'unquestionably one of the sources of
the pleasing excitement, gentle narcotic intoxication, and healthy
tonic action which well-hopped beer is known to produce on those
whose constitutions enable them to drink it'. Even more surprising
is Johnston's description of lettuce.
The juice of these plants, when collected and dried, has considerable
resemblance to opium. If the stem of the common lettuce, when
it is coming into flower, be wounded with a knife, a milky juice
exudes. In the open air, this juice gradually assumes a brown
colour, and dries into a friable mass. The smell of this dried
juice is strongly narcotic, recalling that of opium. It has a
slightly pungent taste but, like opium, leaves a permanent bitterness
in the mouth. It acts upon the brain after the manner of opium
... eaten at night, the lettuce causes sleep; eaten during the
day, it soothes and calms and allays the tendency to nervous irritability.
There are other reminders in the Chemistry of Common Life
that the classification of what is, and what is not, a plant drug
may vary from country to country, and from period to period. But
even more significant, in the light of what was to happen later,
was Johnston's realisation that drugs could not be classified
by their observed pharmacological action on man, because that
action varied so greatly. Moslems, for example, took tobacco because
it soothed the mind to sleep, while leaving the body alert and
that such is not its general action in Europe, the study of almost
every German writer can testify. With the constant pipe diffusing
its beloved aroma around him, the German philosopher works out
the profoundest of his results of thought. He thinks and dreams,
and dreams and thinks, alternately; but while his body is soothed
and stilled, his mind is ever awake. From what I have heard such
men say, I could almost fancy that they had in this practice discovered
a way of liberating the mind from the trammels of the body, and
thus giving it a freer range and more undisturbed liberty of action.
I regret that I have never found it act so upon myself.
To some extent, Johnston realised, individual reactions to a drug
could be accounted for by observing how the individual took it.
A glass of whiskey would have a different effect if it were tossed
off neat than if it were sipped, with water, for an hour. But
this, he felt, was not enough to account for the remarkable differences
in the effects of the same drug on different individualsand
even on different communities. Could it be, he wondered, that
the use of a particular drug over a long period gradually changed
the disposition and temperament of a peoplein turn changing
their reactions? There was no way of telling, with any certainty;
but 'the fate of nations has frequently been decided by the slow
operation of long-acting causes, unthought of and unestimated
by the historian, which, while the name and the local home of
the people remain the same, had gradually changed their constitution,
their character, and their capabilities'.
In view of all this evidence, Johnston argued, to think in terms
of trying to prohibit drug-taking by legislation was futile:
A tendency which is so evidently a part of our general human nature,
is not to be suppressed or extinguished by any form of mere physical,
fiscal, or statutory restraint. It may sometimes be discouraged
or repressed by such means, but even this lesser result is not
always obtainable... an empire may be overthrown by inconsiderate
statutory intermeddling with the natural instincts, the old habits,
or the growing customs of a people, while the instincts and habits
themselves are only strengthened and confirmed.
Johnston's thesis made an impression on Francis Anstie, a physician
at the Westminster Hospital who had been specialising in toxicology,
hopingas he explained in his Stimulants and Narcotics,
published in 1864to be able to remove the study of the subject
from the metaphysical to the physical level. To this end he had
experimented on himself, and on some patients, with a variety
of drugs; his original intention being to put them into categories,
such as the one suggested by the title of his book. To the patient,
as well as to the doctor, the distinction seemed clear; some drugs
were 'stupefying poisons'narcotics; others, 'grateful restoratives'stimulants.
But the result of his researches had upset his expectation that
he would be able to clarify the distinction for textbook purposes.
'To the philosophic student', he ruefully admitted, 'who desires
to arrange in orderly classification the weapons of his art, and
thereby to multiply his resources, the accurate definition of
these two classes of remedies offers a problem at once of great
interest and of extreme difficulty.' Chloroform, for example,
was regarded as a narcotic. But his experiments had shown him
that in certain circumstances, it could be a powerful stimulant.
The action of alcohol was even more confusing. At first sight,
it appeared to be a stimulant; 'but on analysing the symptoms
we are at no loss to perceive that it is the emotional and appetitive
part of the mind which is in action while the intellect, on the
contrary, is directly enfeebled'. It was at least possible, Anstie
speculated, that the outbreak of the passions which alcohol could
induce was due, 'not to any stimulation of them, but to the removal
of the check ordinarily imposed by reason and will'.
To most Europeans, Anstie went on, opium was a narcotic; to Orientals,
a stimulant. They were able, 'sometimes without any previous practice,
to take large quantities of opium without suffering stupefaction;
on the contrary, they appear much exhilarated in spirits, and
their minds work with much freedom. In some cases, muscular power
and the disposition for exertion seem actually to increase'. The
likely explanation, Anstie thought, was that opium prevented other
activities from interfering with mental processes, which gave
the appearance of an increase of intellectual power. And this
could also be an explanation of another mystery. Pain, he suggested,
was not relieved by sedatives and depressantsexcept where
they poisoned the system, as when a man took enough alcohol to
render himself insensible. What relieved pain was the stimulating
effect of opium, or other drugs, in small doses. It was the stimulus,
he concluded, that mattered, and that might be given by some substance
which was not, in the strict sense, a drug, but which had the
appropriate effect; 'I have seen one patient suffering from severe
agony with peritonitis who developed rapid relief from the careful
and gradual injection of a pint of rich soup into the rectum'.
Like Johnston, Anstie had been compelled to recognise what a minor
part the pharmacology of a drug might play in determining man's
reactions to it, compared with the part played by man's responses.
It was a matter of common observation that the same amount of
alcohol which would enliven one man, would depress another; or,
according to his circumstances make the same man jolly, one evening,
and sad, the next. But to the new generation of scientifically-minded
chemists, toxicologists and pharmacologists this was a thoroughly
unsatisfactory state of affairs. It left their discipline uneasily
suspended, like a hammock slung between one solid treechemistryand
some young saplingsbiology, neurology, psychologywhich bent
and swayed in every scientific breeze.
Throughout the century, therefore, pharmacologists continued to
engage in a search for certainties; and in this they were naturally
encouraged by further discoveries of alkalis. These, it continued
to be assumed, represented the essential drug element in a plant.
When they were extracted they would obviate the wastage involved
in consumption of the rest of the plant; when refined, impurities
would be removed. And it would be easier to measure out the prescribed
strength of dosage. So it came about that morphine, the derivative,
began to replace opium and laudanum as a sedative and a painkiller.
The outcome was the first of a succession of cruel disillusionments.
So long as morphine continued to be taken strictly on prescription,
for specific medical purposes, it fulfilled expectations. But
some of the people for whom it was prescribed came to rely on
it for release from everyday cares, and others took it for a 'lift'.
It began to enslave addicts as effectively as laudanum had enslaved
de Quincey. The medical professionthe doctors by this time
had formed themselves into a profession, and had begun to exercise
a closer supervision of drugsreacted with alarm, and for a
time addicts were treated by enforced deprivation. The withdrawal
symptoms, though, could be dangerous, as well as painful; cases
were reported of addicts, deprived of morphine, who had had hallucinations
and delirium, and some of them died under the treatment. What
was needed, clearly, was some drug which would do the work of
morphine, but without creating addiction. Any medical scientist
who found one would have his fortune madeas the young Sigmund
Freud realised, when he first began to experiment with the alkali
which pharmacologists had extracted from the leaves of the coca
Unlike tobacco, coca had not established itself as a drug in Europeor
even in South America, among the colonists. For a young Spaniard
to begin to take it was regarded as a sign that he was rebelling
against his class; he would be repudiated, and forced either to
leave or to live with the Indians, and adopt their ways. Occasionally
travellers would return from voyages in the Andes with stories
of the feats of endurance which the Indians performed under its
influence; but although they were noted by Abraham Cowley (in
whose mind, Dr. Johnson was to recall, 'botany turns into poetry')
Endowed with leaves of wondrous nourishment
Whose juice succ'd in, and to the stomach ta'en
Long hunger and long labour can sustain
its possibilities do not appear to have been recognised until
the Jesuit Don Antonio Julian lamented in his Perla de America
that it was not used in Europe alongside tea and coffee ('it is
melancholy to reflect that the poor of Europe cannot obtain this
preservative against hunger and thirst; that our working people
are not supported by this strengthening plant in their long continued
labours'). The author of a treatise published in 1793 suggested
that the sailors in European navies would benefit from a coca
ration; and in 1814 a writer in the Gentleman's Magazine
elaborated on the proposition. It was not yet clear how the South
American Indians achieved their feats of endurance, he admitted;
it is certain they have that secret, and put it into practice.
They masticate coca, and undergo the greatest fatigue without
any injury to health or bodily vigour. They want neither butcher,
nor baker, nor brewer, nor distiller, nor fuel, nor culinary utensils.
Now, if Professor Davy will apply his thoughts to the subject
here given for his experiments, there are thousands even in this
happy land who will pour their blessings upon him, if he will
but discover a temporary anti-famine, or substitute for food,
free from all inconvenience of weight, bulk and expense, and by
which any person might be enabled, like the Peruvian Indian, to
live and labour in health and spirits for a month now and then
With the coming of the Industrial Revolution, and the employment
of men, women and children in the mills twelve hours a day, six
days a week, there was an incentive to examine the claims for
coca more seriously; especially after von Tschudi's observations
in the 1830s convinced him that coca's reputation was well-founded.
When he took an infusion of the leaves of the plant, while he
was on a hunting expedition at 14,000 feet up in the Andes, he
found it worked for him, too: 'I could then during the whole day
climb the heights, and follow the swift-footed wild animals.'
Taken in excess over a protracted period, Tschudi realised, coca
could have unwelcome effects; the inveterate chewer could be detected
from 'his unsteady gait, his yellow-coloured skin, his dim and
sunken eyes encircled by a purple ring, his quivering lips, and
his general apathy'. But this was unusual. Ordinarily, the drug
appeared to have no adverse effects. Even when it was taken in
very large amounts, there was no loss of consciousness; and many
of those who took it every working day (and doubled their intake
on festival occasions) lived on to a great age, in perfect health.
'Setting aside all extravagant and visionary notions on the subject',
he concluded, 'the moderate use of coca is not merely innocuous,
but it may even be conducive to health.'
Tschudi's Travels in Peru was followed by accounts from
other travellers, most of them in agreement with him; and in the
1850s an Italian doctor, Paolo Mantegazza, experimented on himself
by chewing dried coca leaves. He experienced an increase in physical
and mental energy, and when he tried an infusion of the leaves,
he found that not merely did the inclination to take exercise
become irresistible; he also had an odd feeling of becoming isolated
from the external world, which would enable him to perform feats
which ordinarily he would not have attempted. On an impulse he
jumped up on his writing table, without smashing the lamp or other
objects on it. Nor did he suffer any reaction, comparable with
a hangover: following the activity he felt only quiet comfort.
And increasing the doseto the amount commonly consumed by the
natives of Peruonly increased his sense of exhilaration. Joyously
he told his colleagues that he preferred 'ten years with coca
to a million centuries without'. In a treatise on the subject
published in Milan in 1859 he wrote, more sedately, that the principal
property of coca, 'not to be found in any other remedy, consists
in its exalting effect, calling out the power of the organism
without leaving any sign of debility'; and he recommended its
use for nervous disorders.
Gradually, coca began to win adherents in other countries. In
the early 1870s Sir Robert Christison tried it out on medical
students in Edinburgh, and was impressed by the results; the chewing
of coca leaves, he reported, 'not only removes extreme fatigue,
but prevents it', and the only effect it had on the mental faculties
was to eliminate the dullness ordinarily associated with fatigue.
In France racing cyclists began to take it, to increase their
powers of endurance; so did the Toronto Lacrosse Club, in Canada,
who with its assistance won the title 'Champions of the World'.
From the time of its foundation half a century before, the Lancet
has enjoyed exposing nostrums as quackery; and the budding reputation
of coca gave it yet another opportunity to live up to its reputation.
In 1876 it carried a report of an investigation by G. F. Dowdeswell,
a member of the staff of the University College Physics Department,
into the properties of coca and its action on the human body.
Dowdeswell claimed that he had been concerned solely with the
measurable effects on a human subjectchanges in pulse rate,
temperature, and so on; and he had demonstrated they were negative.
But consumption of coca had also failed to produce any of the
subjective effects 'so fervently described, and ascribed to it,
by others; not the slightest excitement, not even the feeling
of buoyancy and exhilaration which is experienced from mountain
air, or a draught of spring water'. Although Dowdeswell was not
prepared to claim that coca, in this capacity, was pharmacologically
inert, his experiments, he argued, demonstrated that its action
was so slight 'as to preclude the idea of its having any value
either therapeutically or popularly'. Whatever might be the virtue
of the coca leaf in South America, the Lancet commented
editorially, 'it seems to have lost much of its marvellous virtue
when used in this country.'
Laboratory trials of that kind had not then acquired the authority
they were later to command; and even the Lancet's reputation
was not sufficient to stem coca's growing popularity as a stimulant.
The following year, it was admitted to the U.S. Pharmacopeia;
soon afterwards, to its British counterpart; and from the variety
of disorders for which it began to be prescribed it looked as
if it might be following the same triumphant clinical course that
tobacco had taken three centuries earlier. But it was just too
late. Pharmacologists succeeded in identifying what was assumed
to be the narcotic element of the coca leaf: cocaine. It seemed
self-evident that it would be absurd to ask a patient to chew
coca leaves, or drink infusions of them, when it was possible
to give him accurately measured doses of its essential ingredient.
But first, it was necessary to demonstrate that cocaine worked;
and in 1883 a German army doctor tried the drug out on soldiers
to see if it did the same for them as the leaves did for the natives
of Peru. It did. Cocaine, Dr. Theodor Aschenbrandt was able to
report, greatly increased their energy and endurance. The report
attracted Freud's attention. He had just become engaged to Martha
Bernays, and was looking for some medical discovery which would
make his name, and his fortune, so that they could afford to marry.
'I am procuring some myself', he wrote to tell her, 'and will
try it with cases of heart disease and also of nervous exhaustion,
particularly in the miserable condition after withdrawal of morphine',
a possibility which had been suggested in an American medical
journal. Having taken some cocaineit altered his mood from
depression to cheerfulness, he was delighted to find, without
impairing his ability to workhe tried it on his friend Dr.
Fleischl, a morphine addict, with immediately gratifying results.
'The temperament of an investigator'Freud had told Martha in
the letter describing his research into cocaine'needs two fundamental
qualities: he must be sanguine in the attempt, but critical in
the work'. He failed to heed his own advice. Cocaine, he decided,
was 'a magical drug'. He took it himself against depression and
indigestion; sent some to Martha; recommended it for a variety
of disorders; and wrote an essay on it published in 1884, which
was an extended eulogy. Cocaine provided 'exhilaration and lasting
euphoria'; 'an increase of self-control'; 'more vitality and capacity
for work'. Whether mental or physical, work could be performed
without any fatigue; there were none of the unpleasant after-effects
associated with alcohol; and 'absolutely no craving for the further
use of cocaine appears after the first, or even repeated, taking
of the drug; one feels, rather, a curious aversion to it'.
The following year, the first warnings were sounded. To some persons,
nothing was more fascinating than indulgence in cocainea writer
commented in the Medical Record for November 28th, 1885
It relieves the sense of exhaustion, dispels mental depression,
and produces a delicious sense of exhilaration and well-being.
The after-effects are at first slight, almost imperceptible; but
continuous indulgence finally creates a craving which must be
satisfied; the individual then becomes nervous, tremulous sleepless,
without appetite, and he is at last reduced to a condition of
By the spring of 1887 a Brooklyn doctor, J. B. Mattison, had compiled
a formidable dossier to show that cocaine was highly addictiveas
Freud himself, who had passionately defended cocaine, now realised.
He had to watch Fleischl suffering from the agonies of chronic
intoxication, delirium tremens, and 'white snakes creeping over
There was no reason, in theory, why the unmasking of cocaine should
have had an adverse effect on the reputation of cocaany more
than the discovery that tobacco's alkali, nicotine, was highly
poisonous had deterred people from smoking. But because the early
experimenters with cocaine had argued that, as Freud put it, cocaine
was 'the essential constituent of coca leaves', there was an understandable
tendency for coca to be found guilty by association; and it had
not been on the market for long enough to become established in
the way that tobacco had been before nicotine was found.
Coca had its defenders: chief among them W. G. Mortimer, a Fellow
of the New York Academy of Medicine. In 1901 he published his
history of the 'divine plant of the Incas', a rambling, repetitive,
but exhaustively researched defence of the use of the plant, as
distinct from its alkali. The pharmacologists, he asserted, had
deceived the public; cocaine no more represented coca than prussic
acid, found in minute quantities in peach stones, 'represents
that luscious fruit'. The analogy might not be precise, but the
proposition he derived from it was of fundamental importance:
that the action of cocaine on the human system, though in some
respects similar to that of coca, must not be considered as identical:
'each gives a peculiar sense of well being; but cocaine affects
the central nervous system more pronouncedly than does coca; notas
commonly presumedbecause it is coca in a more concentrated
form, but because the associated substances present in coca, which
are important in modifying its action, are not present in cocaine'.
As proof he was able to cite the discovery of Dr. Henry Rusby
that the Andean natives, making their careful selection of leaves
for chewing, did not, in fact, choose the leaves with the
highest cocaine content. And in the entire literature on the subject,
Mortimer claimed, before the attacks on cocaine, there had been
no serious criticism of coca. Nor was there any known case of
coca addiction or coca poisoning ('What it does for the Indian
at fifteen', one authority had asserted, 'it does for him at sixty;
a greatly increasing dose is not resorted to.') Not merely was
it as innocent as tea or coffee, 'which are commonly accepted
popular necessitiesbut it is vastly superior to those substances'.
But how was itif the authorities Mortimer cited were correctthat
the findings of scientific experimenters like Dowdeswell had been
negative? Perhaps, Mortimer surmised, they had used the wrong
kind of leaves. Or the explanation might be along the lines put
forward in 1881 by a New York physician, W. S. Searle: that not
only was coca's action so gentle that it could escape detection:
it might not take place at all in experiments, because the appropriate
mechanism would not be brought into action.
While no other known substance can rival coca in its sustaining
power, no other has so little apparent effect. To one pursuing
the even tenor of his usual routine, the chewing of coca gives
no special sensation. In fact the only result seems to be a negative
one, viz.: an absence of the customary desire for food and sleep.
It is only when some unusual demand is made upon mind or body
that its influence is felt. And to this fact is to be attributed
much of the incredulity of those who have carelessly experimented
with it and who, expecting some internal commotion or sensation,
Mortimer himself felt that the explanation probably also lay in
the different circumstances in which coca was consumed in South
America, where it affected the body's capacity for work by more
efficient conversion of food into energy. Coca helped the Andean
Indians to avoid fatigue by acting upon the stored-up carbohydrates
to which they were accustomed. It might have no affectthe implication
wason a Westerner accustomed to a different diet.
Whatever the explanationMortimer concludedthe evidence from
clinical experience was irrefutable. He had himself circularised
doctors all over America about their experiences with coca; over
350 had replied and a large majority of those expressing opinions
were agreed that coca improved the digestion, strengthened the
heart, stimulated the mind, and improved sexual performance. All
doctors who agreed with him, he urged, should accept the need
for a long and persistent campaign to explain coca's value, 'and
so reflect credit upon themselves through the advocacy and use
of a really marvellous drug'.
It was to no purpose. Coca might be all that Mortimer claimed,
but it lost caste; the medical profession gradually losing interest.
Cocaine, like morphine, continued to have a limited range of clinical
uses; but they would soon, it was hoped, be replaced for most
purposes by a new drug. Heroin had been derived from opium in
1898; soon it was being enthusiastically promoted by manufacturers,
and enthusiastically welcomed by doctors, as more effective than
its predecessors, and carryingthe assurance wasno risk
whatsoever of promoting addiction.
After the disappointments with laudanum and Indian hemp, the search
for a safe and effective vision-inducing drug had languished for
a time; but towards the end of the century it was revived, largely
through the efforts of a young Berlin pharmacologist, Louis Lewin.
Lewin first made his reputation by some research into morphine;
then, he went on to make the first scientific study of kava. Missionaries,
Lewin had read, were inclined to regard kava as a powerful intoxicant
which ought to be banned; yet Europeans who took it generally
found that it had little or no effect on them. Why? Lewin decided
to find the active chemical principle, test it, and settle the
issue one way or the other. The tests convinced him that kava
was a mild stimulant, improving muscular efficiency and endurance;
and though it could be taken as an intoxicant, its effects were
relatively gentle, compared with alcohol. At least people under
its influence did not become noisy and aggressive.
Up to this point, Lewin was following Anstie's course; but whereas
Anstie's findings compelled him to give up the attempt to distinguish
drugs by their effects on man, Lewin remained sublimely confident
that it was only a matter of time before he could unravel the
strands sufficiently to allow him to categorise drugs according
to their effects. And he was greatly encouraged in this view by
peyote which came into his possession on a visit to America. The
botanical Museum in Berlin decided the cacti were a new species;
four alkaloids were extracted from them, including mescalmescaline;
and Lewin had his monumentthe sub-species was named after
him, anhalonium lewinii.
In Lewin, however, peyotl induced no vision. He found it only
toxic (as did William James. It made him vomit; 'I will take the
visions on trust', he told his brother Henry). But another American,
the pioneer psychiatrist Weir Mitchell, was delighted with the
results, when he tried peyotl in the lE90s, finding it a powerful
physical and emotional stimulus. He could climb to the fourth
floor of his hotel two steps at a time without puffing; and later'deliciously
at languid ease, I was clearly in the land where it is always
afternoon'he had a sense of heightened intellectual power.
In retrospect he had to admit that a reading of what he wrote
under the influence failed to justify it; but he could not find
words to express the 'beauty and splendour of what I saw'.
After reading Mitchell's account in the British Medical Journal,
Havelock Ellis took mescaline, with very similar results. His
first symptom was an access of energy, and of intellectual power;
then visions, the colours indescribably vivid and delightful,
so reminiscent of Monet's paintings that Ellis decided to offer
some mescal to an artist he knew, to observe the effect. The artist
duly had fantastic visionsbut they were accompanied by paroxysms,
pain, and the fear he was dying. 'It may at least be claimed,'
Ellis wrote, 'that for a healthy person to be once or twice admitted
to the rites of mescal is not only an unforgettable delight but
an educational influence of no mean value.' But he realised that
more research was needed; and the fact that Weir Mitchell had
also had unfortunate results when he tried it out on a colleague
did not encourage more orthodox medical scientists to carry it
Mescaline had been discovered at the wrong time. Pharmacologists
were looking for drugs which had measurable effects; not drugs
which induced unquantifiable delight. And Lewin, though he had
no doubt that divine inspiration could account for such visions
as that of the prophet Ezekiel'a great cloud, and a fire unfolding
itself, and a brightness was about it, and out of the midst thereof
as the colour of amber'felt that visionary experiences were
ordinarily 'transitory states caused by substances produced in
the organism'. This was a view that was becoming increasingly
popular among scientists: that the visions of the alcoholic, the
schizophrenic and the mystic reflected biochemical changes in
the body. The chemical processes interested them. The visions,
they felt, were of no significance.