Opium Use, Longevity And Personal Deterioration

(Editor’s Note) In this chapter we get to the crux of the matter regarding the impact of Opium on people’s health and longevity – Dr. Calkins finally says it straight out:

“Facts and opinions thus apparently conflicting in the exterior view are sufficiently reconcilable if various qualifying considerations be allowed due force. Prominent among these are purity in the article and moderation in the use.”

“As observes the Rev. Mr. Doolittle, “The favored classes, being possessed of abundant means, can always procure supplies of the purest quality, whereas artisans and others are necessarily limited to the inferior sorts.

From that observation it is only a very short leap to acknowledging that if a person grows their own Opium poppies and harvests the tears of the poppy themselves, and smokes only these crystallized drops of the sun and moon in moderation, then all of the benefits and none of the harm that has been attributed to Opium addiction will fall upon that person.

Similarly, if in our society an ethical grower were able to produce pure, natural Opium for a collective of friends or local clients, and if that Opium were to pass into the hands of the smokers unadulterated by passing through a commercial chain of manipulation, adulteration, greed and deception, then entire communities could enjoy the benefits of the Opium poppy without any of the degradation and pain created entirely by capitalist exploitation. The Opioid Crisis is a crisis of Predatory Capitalism, not of Opium.

(If it matters, I make the same distinction between Capitalism and Predatory Capitalism that I do between hunting animals for food and slaughtering animals for perverted erotic pleasure.

The same principles apply to Cannabis, to Tobacco, to Coca Leaf, and to other spirit plants not as familiar in America. If any of these natural miracles are grown personally, or locally, and if they are either free or priced reasonably according to the labor and capital required to grow them, or if they are bartered for directly with the grower, then there will be no harm, no crime, no suffering, and no degradation of the human body or spirit. It is the predatory commercial chain that has been developed around each of these pure, natural plants that is the cause of unbearable pain on a global scale – not the plants themselves. The plants are sacred gifts of Mother Earth and the Great Spirit. The pain and suffering are entirely man-made.

(From: “Opium And the Opium Appetite”

by Alonzo Calkins, MD (1870)

Chapter X: Longevity And Personal Deterioration

“Abstulit clarum cita mors Achillem;

Longa Tithonurri minuit sehectus.” – Horace.


“Devouring famine, plague and war,

Each able to undo mankind,

Death’s servile emissaries are:

Nor yet to these alone confined –

He hath at will

More quaint and subtle ways to kill.” – Shirley.

Longevity, in the prospective, is to be determined, not upon the citation of instances exclusively but from physical condition and social surroundings also. Plato died in harness as it were, that is, pen in hand, at the ripe age of 84. Suleyman of Constantinople passed into his 99th year. Dr. Burnes cites the case of Visrajee, a Cutchee chief 80 years old and more at the time, with health unimpaired, though an eater a lifetime. Schlegel’s woman lived upon laudanum, one might say, having used it regularly from her 49th to her 70th year, and at the rate of 300 drops in her last years. Dr. Christison instances a woman of 70, who had been habituated 40 years of the time; and another, a Leith woman, who used half an ounce as long, and who lived ten years longer. Dr. Pidduck had a similar case of the other sex.

A Brooklyn pharmaceutist furnishes for this record the case of a grandmother who died at 98, having in a measure subsisted upon laudanum for a quarter of her life. The amount for the last two years (and this had not for a long time varied considerably) was 2 tablespoonfuls, always provided she could get that much allowed her. Emaciated and withered some beyond what in the course of nature was to be expected, she lived exempt from nervousness and constipation.

Edward Parrish notices a Philadelphia lady, who having at her advanced age fallen under a sudden apprehension of impending death, betook herself to opium as what must save her, if anything could, and now for several years she is still holding out. Five octogenarians there have been known of by the writer, all within New York City and the environs, and twice as many ranging between 65 and 75.

Observers neither few nor obscure have raised the question, whether any curtailment of the life-term is to be ascribed of course to the free use of opium. Dr. O’Shaughnessy of Calcutta, one of the doubters, declares his opinion thus: “The longevity of the opium eater is proverbial.”

Smokers not a few, sixty and seventy years old, who had been addicted half their lives, came under the notice of Surgeon Smith. Dr. Oxley was assured by several such, that neither is life shortened nor health impaired, provided due limitations in quantity are maintained. Dr. Burnes, at the Court of Runjeet Singh, remarked that the people of that locality did not, to appearance, suffer much from using opium, nor was there any visible contraction of the natural period. Sir John Bowring, resident at Canton in an official capacity for twenty ears, pronounces the accounts published by many purists as superficial in description and overwrought detail.

Here at home Dr. C. A. Lee reckons it from proven that opium, used in moderation, their contracts the expected term or impairs functional regularity. These views are strengthened by certain known facts. Thus Dr. Harper, the Dispensary in the Fen district of Lancashire, hunted up one day out of the entire company of consumers, fifteen persons averaging in quantity ¼ to ½ an ounce, whose median age was 75 years. The Assei-Batang (gold-traders), a very industrious class, though notably given to the smoking of opium, are healthy and robust, says Marsden; and even in the Tories at Benares, the atmosphere of which is constantly charged with pulverulent particles or vapory exhalations arising from the gummy masses, the ickers and other manipulators have an average of life comparing favorably with the handicraft-workers generally (Dr. Eatwell).

Reports and opinions in discrepancy with such are not lacking nevertheless. Dr. Oxley, while resident in Singapore, had never met (a single instance, an octogenarian, excepted) the first opium eater that had one beyond maturity. Dr. Madden at the Constaninople Bazaar found but one visitor who had passed his climacteric, a man who had formed the habit twenty-five years before. Most of the theriakis present were apparently short of thirty-five. Dr. Parker and Dr. Macgowan both, after an extended survey of the field, express corresponding views. Says De Pouqueville, “The man who begins at twenty cannot expect to pass his thirty-sixth year” (a point twenty-five years short of his term according to the life-tables), and Oppenheim concurs. Pohlman, American missionary at Amoy, and Martin of the civil service, would reduce even this term. Dr. Little, a final appellant in all inquiries that pertain to opium, affirms that the stimulus when freely used not only shortens the term of life, but operates powerfully in making that life miserable so long as it lasts.

American physicians hold similar views. Dr. Palmer had but three patients at most who had neared seventy; most fell short of the meridian.

Thus speaks Cabanis upon narcotic stimuli in general: “L’usage habituelle de narcotiques contribue beaucoup a la longue a halter vieillesse precoce, enervant avant le temps, et s’aggravant de jour au jour.”

Of 29 detenus at the House of Correction in Singapore, all Chinamen, the 21 who smoked bore every one of them a sickly aspect with indications of premature decline; of the 9 besides, only 2 had been invalids in any respect. The doses of the twenty-one varied between 24 and 350 grains, the average being 80.

Mustapha Shatoor, whom Edward Smith saw in Smyrna, seemed by his withered face and scorbutic tooth-sockets full twenty years older than he was. His counterpart, as described by Adams, was a feeble man of a Malay village, bent almost double upon himself, whose skinny, clawlike fingers, ulcerous mouth and waddling gait, gave him much the appearance of another Nebuchadnezzar turned out to grass.

The deteriorative influence may show itself, though variously, in an entire household. There is the Chrystie family of L., a N, E. town, numbering five in all, who subsist upon opium, consuming whatever they can raise the money for, whether by stealing or otherwise, all having the look of emaciation and stupidity. The father in particular has become excessively nervous from cataleptic spasms, and all appear if a slow death were upon them. A single exception among them is a daughter, who, having had a home away from the rest, has kept clear of the contamination. Her advantage over them, both mentally and in person, is obvious and unmistakable. Three ounces of the gum per week (as much as they are able to procure anyhow) make the supply for the five; but be it so much or less than this they never fall back upon liquor as a substitute (Dr. S. S.).

The aspect of the opium eater who has fully succumbed to the malign influence is thus indicated: A sunken glassy eye with a livid circle around the pupil, dilated at first but afterwards permanently contracted, the skin of a muddy yellow or bronzed, an embarrassed tongue with thick speech, fissured lips, spine pronated and to an extreme perhaps, wasted limbs, a claudicating, vertiginous gait, a look haggard, decrepit and cadaverous, and in the end a general derangement of the physical functions and a paralysis of the mental faculties.

A fit appendix to the preceding summary is the case of the Turkish Effendi, reported by Beaujour, who had his boluses every hour, varying them with coffee taken twice as often, and whose sole aliment proper was six ounces of rice. This desiccated specimen of humanity might have passed very well for a mummy.

Facts and opinions thus apparently conflicting in the exterior view are sufficiently reconcilable if various qualifying considerations be allowed due force. Prominent among these are purity in the article and moderation in the use.

As observes the Rev. Mr. Doolittle, “The favored classes, being possessed of abundant means, can always procure supplies of the purest quality, whereas artisans and others are necessarily limited to the inferior sorts.”

Then, too, the rich, unrestricted as they are in the variety of their luxuries, are less likely to push any one of them to an extreme. Indeed, with the great majority of consumers, the most powerfully cooperative influence is the scant supply of food and its unsubstantial quality. Universally it holds, as the mortuary records show, that people of easy condition in life with the various luxuries accessible, free livers though they be, do as a class outlast nevertheless their ill-provisioned and impoverished neighbors; just as the fastidious gourmet who sips Lafitte at Tortoni’s will outlive the saboted artisan who goes for his vin ordinaire six times a day to the cabaret in the Banlieu.

There is a certain class in the commonalty, the litterateurs, who make a far better show than the average. Randolph died at 60, Coleridge at 62, Hall reached 66, and De Quincey (who had one long period of intermission, however) attained to 72. Lamartine went to his 77th year, but then he began too late to be included properly in this enumeration.

In this chapter may properly be recorded the history of an opium eater, more remarkable, as viewed in all its phases, than any that has hitherto found a place on the records of medical journalism.

In 1852 there called at the office of the writer, upon the suggestion of a mutual friend, a person of mature age as he obviously was, yet retaining much of the clearness of complexion, brilliancy of eye, and elasticity of gait that belong properly to youth, and with voice marked by mellow tone curiously vibrating between falsetto and basso. This visitor (a gentleman of the ancien regime with truly in his entire bearing), now in his eighty-sixth year, in view of his robustness, and but that his teeth were gone, might have passed for a man of sixty. A specific symptom having been prescribed for, the patient departed, to be met a second time and on Wall Street thirteen years after, when it was observed he still maintained the at-militaire port of the early soldier.

Captain F. L., of the 60th British rifles, who during an eventful life has circuited the globe twice over in the prosecution of official service rendered at remote stations, contracted one time, while doubling Good Hope, a rheumatism in the form of lumbago. The malady proving obstinate, opium, faute de meilleur, as advised by a medical officer, began to be used, but irregularly only and in half-grain doses at most The present mitigation of suffering that was very sure to follow invited renewals of the pill, until what had been only an occasional resource became an indispensable companion. For two years no augmentation in quantity was made, and indeed for a long period  there were but very inconsiderable additions.

From the tenth year on to the fourteenth the advance was from about twenty to thirty-six grains. From this point, however, there was a more accelerated progress, up to a drachm at length. The maximum finally reached was 75 grains for the twenty-four hours, and only in a single instance, and to the extent of twice seventy-five grains, was this amount ever exceeded. Precise measure appears, however, to have been of secondary moment, for, so resistive was his physical stamina, he could on an emergency drink off a tumblerful of laudanum entire, the very thing he once did at sea, being supplied from the medicine chest An extra annoyance was a local neuralgia induced by a shell-wound at Busaco. A fragment of this missile, having got a lodgment in the thigh, lay imbedded there for more than twenty years, slowly burrowing its way towards the knee, from whence it was finally dislodged by the scalpel.

This Nestor of opium eaters, for he has been a consumer over half a century and for something over one-half of his life, now 104 years of age, whose present regular dose is 60 grains or one drachm of the solid gum, experiences none of the excitement, physical or mental, that pertains to the habit, feeding well and sleeping regularly. Opium has become in his case a constituent part of the pabulum vita, a roborant, in fact, as indispensable for the maintaining of the several functions in their proper energy and equipoise as is the daily ration of food.

Only two considerable discomforts are felt: an occasionally intervening diarrhoea, during the continuance of which the usual allowance is reduced perhaps by one-half or thereabouts; the other, that besetting symptom attaching to the habit, and which holds the victim in perpetual thrall – constipation. This often persisted for a fortnight together, unrelieved thus long except from the stimulus of some active purgative, until, as advised by the writer, recourse was had to instrumental aid, and to the signal relief of the sufferer. The syringe, now had in almost daily requisition for eighteen years, has about superseded cathartics. Upon medium calculation, this veteran of veterans has consumed in the course of half a century two-thirds of a hundredweight or more of solid opium; but for all this his personal aspect and habitual carriage betoken a fairly vigorous man scarcely advanced to years fourscore. A physiological anomaly so unique, so extraordinary, should presumably derive some elucidation from the checkered course as traced in the record.

This voyaging soldier, born in London, March 1766, was of Anglo-French parentage. His father’s father was among the Huguenots who were expelled from France in 1685 by the edict of Nantes; his mother was an Englishwoman. After an education at the Croydon military school young L., at the age of twenty-three, was commissioned an ensign. Previously to his embarkation for the Peninsula he had served under Cornwallis in India, under York in Holland, and with the force that co-operated with Nelson at the bombardment of Copenhagen. In Spain it was, 1810, that he achieved signal distinction. Having volunteered to lead the forlorn hope against a French battery which, from a height, commanded the town of Busaco, the young ensign carried the redoubt after a brief but desperate struggle, but at the expense of fifty-nine killed and wounded out of a squad of one hundred picked men. Himself, already wounded from a fragment of an exploded shell, was felled to the ground in the very crisis of the fight, receiving a cut across the scalp from a sabreur. In recognition of this feat of successful daring, conduct that in the grande arrnee would have earned a marshal’s baton conferred upon the field, he was awarded a commemorative medal and a captaincy. Subsequently on service at the Cape, the new captain introduced himself for the first time to the Yankees, his future friends, by over-hauling an American cruiser. This was in 1811. In 1814 he is found at the Vienna Congress an attache of Castlereagh; and at St. Helena, whither his regiment had been ordered, he made the acquaintance of the illustrious prisoner, Napoleon.

Having sold out his commission in 1818, this indefatigable man, never tired of service, turns up as governor of a convict establishment in Australia. In 1824, being at sea with his family on the way for London, he was shipwrecked in Algoa Bay, losing his wife, and with her all his earnings, fifteen thousand pounds in gold; himself barely escaping, having been picked up on the strand in a state of insensibility and exhaustion. In 1837 the captain, then a voyager upon the Pacific Seas, visited Tahiti, some time after the French occupation. Ever faithful to his native instincts and ancestral traditions, he rendered himself active in behalf of the English missionaries there who were suffering some grievance at the time; but his interference operating somewhat in derogation of Gallic honneur, he was tendered by the admiral on the station a gratuitous convoy to England; a proffer which, with his characteristic suavity of politesse, he unhesitatingly accepted.

A retired pensioner, denizened in New York since 1848, this gentleman is now enjoying his “sunset of life” in a serene tranquillity amidst distinguished friends, who appreciate his worth and delight to do him honor. As if “never weary in well-doing,” our friend during the riot scenes of 1863 was the instrument, though at much personal hazard, of rescuing a life from mob-law vengeance; thus earning, Athenian-like, the honorable meed of a “civic crown.”

Conformably to habits established in early youth and but little departed from, the captain rises at three o’clock in the morning and has a substantial meal, then reads till the hour has come when he can get his morning-paper a mile away, breakfasts at eight, and in due time is off for  Fifth Avenue, gets home for dinner, which he has about two of the afternoon and which he sets to with zeal and gusto, has a brief siesta after, and tea at five o’clock. At seven of the evening he retires for bed, and has a continuous comfortable sleep for six hours, undisturbed by dreams or visions of any description.

Such are the methodical habits of the man, such is the daily routine. Hearing continues unimpaired, the eye is but little dimmed, the memory is still unconfused and retentive, and conversational interviews are conducted in a pleasant way, intermingled with sententious remark and lively reminiscence. The pre-eminently ennobling grace that adorns the character, and what must not be overlooked in this episode, is that firm faith fixed on Him who is the succor and stay of us all. Let me embrace thee, good old chronicle, That hast so long gone hand in hand with Time –  most reverend Nestor!

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