It has been a while since I have posted selections from the Coca Leaf literature of the 19th Century, and I thought that readers of this blog might enjoy browsing some more of the insightful observations of Dr. Golden Mortimer and others on the topic of Coca leaf vs. Cocaine.
Dr. Mortimer was acutely aware of the controversy regarding the potential dangers of the newly discovered alkaloid Cocaine, as well as the widely accepted efficacy of natural Coca Leaf in the treatment of a wide range of diseases and conditions.
The following comments will give the reader a good perspective on the thinking among physicians of the day on this subject. For more depth see Coca Leaf Papers.
“The action of cocaine has been placed midway between morphine and caffeine. In man the initial effect of Coca is sedative, followed by a rapidly succeeding and long continued stimulation. This may be attributed to the conjoined influence of the associate alkaloids upon the spinal cord and brain, whereby the conducting powers of the spinal cord are more depressed than are the brain centers.
In view of these physiological facts it is unscientific to regard strychnine as an equivalent stimulant to Coca or a remedy which may fulfill the same indications, as erroneously suggested by several correspondents. For immediate stimulation Coca is best administered as a wine, the mild exhilaration of the spirit giving place to the sustaining action of Coca without depression.
“The action of Coca and cocaine, while similar, is different. Each gives a peculiar sense of well being, but cocaine affects the central nervous system more pronouncedly than does Coca, not – as commonly presumed – because it is Coca in a more concentrated form, but because the associate substances present in Coca, which are important in modifying its action, are not present in cocaine.
The sustaining influence of Coca has been asserted to be due to its anӕsthetic action on the stomach, and to its stimulating effect on brain and nervous system. But the strength-giving properties of Coca, aside from mild stimulation to the central nervous system, are embodied in its associate alkaloids, which directly bear upon the muscular system, as well as the depurative influence which Coca has upon the blood, freeing it from the products of tissue waste. The quality of Coca we have seen is governed by the variety of the leaf, and its action is influenced by the relative proportion of associate alkaloids present.
If these be chiefly cocaine or its homologues the influence is central, while if the predominant alkaloids are cocamine or benzoyl ecgonine, there will be more pronounced influence on muscle. When the associate bodies are present in such proportion as to maintain a balance between the action upon the nervous system and the conjoined action upon the muscular system, the effect of Coca is one of general invigoration.
“It seems curious, when reading of the marvelous properties attributed by so many writers to the influence of Coca leaves, that one familiar with the procedure of the physiological laboratory should have arrived at any such conclusion as that of Dowdeswell, who experimented with Coca upon himself.
After a preliminary observation to determine the effect of food and exercise he used Coca “in all forms, solid, liquid, hot and cold, at all hours, from seven o’clock in the morning until one or two o’clock at night, fasting and after eating, in the course of a month probably consuming a pound of leaves without producing any decided effect.” It did not affect his pupil nor the state of his skin. It occasioned neither drowsiness nor sleeplessness, and none of those subjective effects ascribed to it by others. “It occasioned not the slightest excitement, nor even the feeling of buoyancy and exhilaration which is experienced from mountain air or a draught of spring water.”
His conclusion from this was that Coca was without therapeutic or popular value, and presumed: “The subjective effects asserted may be curious nervous idiosyncrasies.”
This paper, coming so soon after the publication of a previous series of erroneous conclusions made by Alexander Bennett, created a certain prejudice against Coca. Theine, caffeine and theobromine having been proved to be allied substances, this experimenter proceeded to show that cocaine belonged to the same group. As a result of his research he determined that “the action of cocaine upon the eye was to contract the pupil similar to caffeine,” while the latter alkaloid he asserted was a local anesthetic; observations which have never been confirmed by other observers.
In view of our present knowledge of the Coca alkaloids, it seems possible that these experiments may have been made with an impure product in which benzoyl-ecgonine was the more prominent base. However, the absolute error of Bennett’s conclusions has been handed down as though fact, and his findings have been unfortunately quoted by many writers, and even crept into the authoritative books.
Thus Ziemssen’s Cyclopcedia of the Practice of Medicine which is looked upon as a standard by thousands of American physicians, quotes Bennett in saying: “Guaranine and cocaine are nearly, if not quite, identical in their action with theine, caffeine and theobromine.” The National Dispensatory refers to the use of Coca in Peru as being similar to the use of Chinese tea elsewhere – as a mild stimulant and diaphoretic and an aid to digestion – which are mainly the properties of coffee, chocolate and guarana, and Bennett is quoted to prove that the active constituents of all these products: “Although unlike one another and procured from totally different sources possess in common prominent principles, and are not only almost identical in chemical composition, but also appear similar in physiological action.”
“These statements, which are diametrically opposed to the present accepted facts concerning Coca, are not merely a variance of opinion among different observers, but are the careless continuance of early errors, and suggest the long dormant stage in which Coca has remained, and has consequently been falsely represented and taught through sources presumably authentic.
“As may be inferred from its physiological action. Coca as a remedial agent is adapted to a wide sphere of usefulness, and if we accept the hypothesis that the influence of Coca is to free the blood from waste and to repair tissue, we have a ready explanation of its action.
Bartholow says: “It is probable that some of the constituents of Coca are utilized in the economy as food, and that the retardation of tissue-waste is not the sole reason why work may be done by its use which can not be done by the same person without it.”
Stockmann considers that the source of endurance from Coca can hardly depend solely upon the stimulation of the nervous system, but that there must at the same time be an economizing in the bodily exchange. An idea which is further confirmed by the total absence of emaciation or other injurious consequences in the Indians who constantly use Coca. He suggests that “Coca may possibly diminish the consumption of carbohydrates by the muscles during exertion. If this is so, then less oxygen would be required, and there is an explanation of the influence of Coca in relieving breathlessness in ascending mountains.”