23 Apr William Brooke O’Shaughnessy – From There to Now.
An exceptional scientist and a beleaguered plant.
It is nearly impossible to underestimate the contribution William Brooke O’Shaughnessy has made to science. Yet, despite his outstanding talent in medicine, chemistry and physics, O’Shaughnessy remains largely unknown, which is a pity because he was every inch the visionary, a doctor who made ground-breaking scientific advancements as well as demonstrating flashes of real genius throughout his impressive career in the UK and India.
Unusually for a student trained in the Hippocratic tradition, O’Shaughnessy embraced the potential of eastern medicine and because of his experimental work with native Indian herbs, if he is remembered today, it’s as the godfather of western medicinal cannabis. Fast forward two centuries and gasp at the hullaballoo following a plant that heralded so much potential for western medicine. Be astounded by its strong-armed shaming at the hands of industries set up to compete against it. Shake your head in disbelief at its systematic vilification and eventual prohibition. Had WB known that producing a tincture from this plant would eventually become a criminal offence, would he have laughed or cried?
William was born in Limerick in 1809. His exceptional mind must have been evident from an early age because he was afforded a Secondary School education. His parent’s mixed marriage (father a Roman Catholic merchant and mother a Church of England Protestant) possibly attributed to the variations in William’s name; firstly William Sands, later William Brooke O’Shaughnessy and finally William O’Shaughnessy Brooke. This was an era of change, the beginning of a new century. Other luminaries born around this time include Charles Darwin (b.1809), Edgar Allan Poe (b.1809) and William’s good friend Samuel Morse (b.1791) whose scientific groundwork WB would draw upon when rolling out the expansive telegraphic network system he established across India. This earned him a knighthood from Queen Victoria in November, 1856. His life, by any standards, was extraordinary. He lived on two continents, married three times and fathered eleven children.
He had enormous drive, clearly a man motivated not by money but by the betterment of mankind through the advancement of science. 1852, Lord Dalhousie, Governor-General of India wrote of him: ” I believe I am doing no more than expressing the universal opinion (that we are)… indebted to the ability, the undaunted energy, the perseverance and skill of Dr. W. O’Shaughnessy. He has accomplished the whole (telegraphic system) unaided…in the midst of other important duties and without any remuneration whatever.”
William began his academic career in Trinity College, Dublin in 1825. He transferred to the University of Edinburgh two years later where he studied Medicine, Chemistry and Forensic Toxicology, graduating in 1829. O’Shaughnessy’s capacity stemmed from his unwavering curiosity and he was always focused on finding solutions. His formative work as a forensic investigator demonstrates this. An original CSI detective, William believed chemistry held the key to unlocking particular criminal cases. In 1841, he found the crucial piece of evidence that clinched a murder investigation, securing a conviction – tiny fragments of metallic arsenic in the stomach of a cadaver which had been buried for almost eight months. Nice work.
In October 1831, a cholera outbreak in North East England aroused William’s interest and he began investigating the blood of victims with a view to finding a cure. O’Shaughnessy would have been aware of the disease since childhood. St John’s Hospital (formally known as The Fever & Lock) had been established in Limerick City in 1780 to deal specifically with cholera and typhus epidemics. William’s father was listed as a subscriber to the charity-funded hospital in 1812, and its close proximity to his father’s parish of St Michael’s would have meant William certainly knew of its existence and was possibly even curious about its work.
In December 1831, The Lancet published William’s “Proposal of a New Method of Treating the Blue Epidemic Cholera by the Injection of Highly-Oxygenised Salts into the Venous System.” This paper represented his evidential discovery of the effectiveness of IV therapy in the treatment of cholera, the birth of what we now refer to as the drip.
Between 1831 and 1833, William had four more papers published on the subject. By now, he had caught the eye of Sir William Russell, MD, who had just returned from Calcutta to form the Cholera Commission in London and it was his recommendation that took William, his first wife Isabella whom he’d married in 1829, and their new-born daughter Isabella Mary, off to India to work at the Bengal Medical Establishment as assistant surgeon. In August 1834, just eight months after her arrival in Calcutta, William’s wife died of apoplexy. To ease his grief perhaps, William spent time on duty with the 10th Regiment Bengal Light Cavalry and the 72nd Bengal Native Infantry.
By August 1835, William had been appointed Professor of Chemistry & Materia Medicia to the new medical college at Calcutta. This proved to be a turning point in his medical research. He became concerned by the therapeutic properties of Indian Hemp. His characteristic attention to detail led him to painstakingly collate all existing reports on cannabis and he began testing its effects on animals. His notes on the results are meticulously detailed, his approach impressive and measured. He wrote: “It seems needless to dwell on the details of each experiment; suffice it to say that they led to one remarkable result – that while carnivorous animals and fish, dogs, cats, swine, vultures, crows and adjutants, invariably and speedily exhibited the intoxicating influence of the drug, the graminivorous, such as the horse, deer, monkey, goat, sheep and cow, experienced but trivial effects from any dose we administered.”
Eventually, he progressed to testing on humans and found that cannabis extract helped lessen vomiting and stomach symptoms associated with cholera. Finally, William was able to demonstrate empirically that some Indian vegetable remedies had “valuable therapeutic properties.” William’s experiments were also the first to demonstrate that hemp resin could be used as an effective sedative. He must have suspected cannabis as having antispasmodic properties because he followed this research with experiments using hemp resin as a treatment for rheumatism and traumatic tetanus.
1838, William treated a month-old baby for convulsions, most likely epilepsy, using hemp resin. He successfully eased her symptoms. Afterwards, he wrote that in cannabis, “the profession has gained an anti-convulsive remedy of the greatest value.” This was excellent news for scientific discovery. The medical fraternity were excited by its possibilities. Yet, fast forward once more to present times and we see its potential squandered and strangled by the bewildering, overly-complicated law surrounding it. Emma Appleby is a bang-up-to-date case in point. Her daughter’s medicinal cannabis oil was seized at Southend Airport in April this year. It qualified as a controlled substance because it was not accompanied by a British prescription. She wouldn’t have endured such a woeful, anxiety-ridden experience had WB O’Shaughnessy been her doctor.
Medicinal cannabis is legal in the UK since 2018. Patients are legitimately choosing it as their preferred medication, but experts are continually citing lack of scientific research as the main barrier to prescribing it. They’re saying they don’t know and if they don’t know, how could their patients know, so the answer is no. Perhaps these experts should climb onto the shoulders of the giants who went before them and root out some (very) old copies of their medical journals. An 1840 review in The Lancet said of O’Shaughnessy’s research on cannabis: “The labours of Dr O’Shaughnessy, as a scientific chemist, are already known in the most favourable manner to our readers; but unlike the greater number of chemists, he combines practice with theory and directs his scientific discoveries to the advancement of medicine as a healing art.”
July 4th 1840, William published in The Lancet: “New Remedy for Tetanus and other Convulsive Disorders.” In November 1841, he brought back to England samples of hemp for the Pharmaceutical Society and specimens of Cannabis Indica and Nux Vomica to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. In February, 1843, William published in The Provincial Medical Journal: “On The Preparations of the Indian Hemp, or Gunjah, (Cannabis Indica), a wonderfully detailed paper, received well by his peers.
In a move that resonates strongly today, considering the exclusive cost of health care and burgeoning socio-economic problems in developing countries, he suggested the construction a “pharmacopoeia for the poor to whom the costly remedies of Europe and South America are inaccessible.” In 1844, remarkably, he published the “Bengal Pharmacopoeia.”
So where did it all go wrong for O Shaughnessy’s divinely beneficial plant? The one that readily gave us rope, twine, cloth, paper and oil and that formed the basis for many patented medicines before the discovery of aspirin?
The biggest blow was most likely struck by American Harry Anslinger (b. 1892), the man responsible for enforcing Prohibition in America. In 1930, Anslinger was appointed Commissioner of the new Bureau of Narcotics. When prohibition on alcohol ended in failure in 1933, Anslinger set his attention on cannabis. He launched a rattling propaganda campaign characterised by scare-mongering tactics, pejorative rhetoric and xenophobic slogans, making ridiculous and sensationalist claims about the evils of cannabis. Anslinger was egged on by the Du Pont Petrochemical Company and its financial backer and key political ally, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon (Anslinger’s uncle in law) along with The Hearst Corporation, a massive media conglomerate which owned amongst other things, the tree-felling company that produced Du Pont’s paper. Patty Hearst, great-granddaughter George Hearst, founder of the Hearst Corporation , would be famously kidnapped some 40 years later. These organisations were heavily invested in ensuring the success of fossil fuel and the decommissioning of hemp. By 1919, Henry Ford had begun to produce assembly-line cars that ran on biomass fuel from hemp. The same year, Gulf Oil opened its first drive-in petrol station. The conflict of interest is clear. A war was started, and due in most part to the zeal of Anslinger, who provided the false and riotous stories about cannabis that appeared in Hearst-owned newspapers, the Marihuana Tax Act of 1937 was introduced marking the start of full-scale prohibition.
But things are shifting. What was once considered unthinkable is now a reality. Freedom of choice is trumping the body of objection and in America today, medical use is legal in 33 states and recreational use of cannabis is legal in 10. An new industry is born. Some estimates have its worth reaching a trillion US dollars by 2030. Cannabis, the cheap, domestic resource, incarcerated since 1937, is being sold back to us, newly packaged, as a liberated commodity. Alex Halperin, writing in the Guardian, points to an ‘unavoidable moral dimension’ faced by Americans around the legal cannabis market; every one’s aware of the disproportionate number of black people who suffered during Nixon’s ‘war on drugs,’ people who went to prison for doing something that’s oh so fly now. To deal with the luckless fallout of seeming hypocrisy, programs have been set up that allow persons convicted of cultivating cannabis in the past to access funds to help them set up in legitimate business. Craft cannabis producers abound as the ultimate Green businesspeople, literally making money from pulling something out of soil and selling it for a profit. No middleman, no packaging necessary, the essence of eco-friendly commerce. But like most artisans, these producers face constant financial difficulties. Since things are legitimised, the pond is getting bigger and the sharks are huge. Major pharmacy chains are already on the trail. It’s easy to imagine the likes of Coca Cola, Pfizer or maybe Guinness giving cannabis a total make-over and trade-marking it as their own in the future. Putting cannabis in the control of the free market might prove divisive yet.
Back in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, things aren’t so far along. Despite its legalisation for medicinal use patients still can’t access the therapeutic powers of cannabis. In Ireland, some noises are being made around cultivation and licencing and awarding permits, but it’s a mere whisper. However, it is just a matter of time before the ban on cannabis is lifted throughout the west.
O’Shaughnessy retired to England in 1860 after a long and distinguished career, and died aged 80, on January 8th 1889 in Clarence Parade, Southsea, Hampshire. He is buried in Highland Rd. Cemetery, Portsmouth. What would the doctor who practiced ‘medicine as a healing art’ say about the bureaucratic tangle that has led to where we are now with regards to his wonderful plant? For a man so adept at finding solutions, I think he’d be lost for words.