By Susan Sosbe
Morphine, along with opium and laudanum, was widely used in the Civil War to relieve soldiers after surgical procedures were performed in field hospitals. Despite the side effects of using morphine, it is still a commonly used analgesic and is held up as a comparison for all other acute pain relievers.
Morphine was first discovered by Friedrich Wilhelm Adam Serturner when he managed to isolate the alkaloid in the opium poppy in 1805. He often experimented with his discovery on himself, noting both the benefits and the negative aspects of morphine. Although not much interest was shown in his discovery at first, chemists and physicians soon showed an interest in his findings. He received an award for the discovery of morphine in 1831.
Morphine was named after Morpheus, the Roman god of dreams. It is the active ingredient found in opium. Its use in the early stages of the Civil War consisted of using it in powder form and sprinkling it or rubbing it directly on the wound site. In later years, syringes, which had become more reliable in the 1850s, were made more readily available to surgeons in field hospitals, and it was injected into the patient's body in liquid form.
As with the use of other opiates, there was a danger of addiction and overdose in soldiers who were given morphine. It has been noted that in some hospitals during the Civil War, the medicine supplies were guarded by armed men to keep addicts from stealing. Other side effects from the use of morphine were vomiting, nausea, respiratory depression, cough suppression and sedation.
Some of the side effects of morphine were also some of the benefits during the Civil War. In addition to the relief of pain, morphine was also used for sedation of patients, allowing them to get the rest that was necessary for recovery, if they were lucky enough to avoid infection from their wounds.
With the discovery of morphine, and the overall benefits of using it to relieve pain after surgery, it became widely used in the medical profession. It was still used in the field during both World Wars. Unfortunately, it was also discovered that due to its highly addictive properties, many soldiers of the Civil War left the field as addicts. It is estimated that 400,000 Civil War soldiers became addicted. Because of this, the addiction to morphine became known as the "soldier's disease."