A wry view of life for the world-weary

Quacks Pretend To Cure Other Men’s Disorders But Rarely Find A Cure For Their Own – Part Forty Three


Morphina-cura or Habitina

Sometime during the early part of the 19th century Friedrich Wilhelm Serturner managed to isolate a yellowish-white crystalline compound from crude opium. After successfully experimenting with it as a form of pain relief he called this new substance after the Greek god of sleep, morphine. The development of the first hypodermic needle in 1853 meant for the first time it could be delivered directly into the blood stream and from that moment morphine became established as the analgesic of choice.

Unfortunately, of course, morphine was addictive – soldiers who had been injured on the battlefield were pumped full of morphine and their on-going dependence on the stuff was known as “Soldiers’ Disease”. Morphinism was viewed at the turn of the 20th century as such a scourge in polite society that it opened up an opportunity for unscrupulous quacks to exploit.

Step forward, Dr Robert Prewitt and Ryland C Bruce who, trading as the Delta Chemical Company, began in 1906 to promote Morphina-cura. Retailing at $2 a bottle it was advertised as “an infallible remedy for the cure of Drug Habits of all kinds”. Prepared for hypodermic or internal use, it was available through the post. It was rebranded as Habitina in 1907, probably in response to the Pure Food and Drug Act which took a dim view to drugs being named in a way that suggested they were a cure to something.

Habitues, as the target audience of morphine addicts were quaintly named, were exhorted to “discontinue the use of all narcotic drugs and take sufficient Habitina to support the system without any of the old drug”. The idea was that over time the addicts would reduce the amount they took until, eventually, they could live without it at all. But, of course, life isn’t like that and the unfortunate habitues swapped one form of addiction for another.

When Prewitt and Bruce were arrested and charged with sending poison through the mail in 1912, the stories of the devastation their panacea had caused were harrowing. One mechanic from Missouri had lost everything, consuming a $2 bottle a day and become a “maniac”, a woman from Pennsylvania had lost her reason and went blind after taking Habitina, although she was eventually cured of her addiction in hospital, and, perhaps most tragic of all was a 26 year-old woman who spent more than $2,300 on the stuff over a 5 year period, even foregoing shoes to afford it. Although initially convicted, it would appear that the duo were released on appeal.

What helped their case was that they were upfront in describing what was in their concoction, perhaps a benefit of the tightening of legislation surrounding pharmaceuticals, even if it did not preclude the stuff being sent through the mail. The bottle’s label had a skull and cross-bones in the top left hand corner beneath which was the legend “Poison”. The label went on to announce that for every fluid ounce there were 16 grains of morphine sulphate and 8 grains of a morphine derivative called diacytle morphine hydrochloride.

In other words, over the six years they were trading, between 1906 and 1912, Prewitt and Bruce had made half a million dollars by supplying morphine addicts with a more expensive branded version of the drug. No wonder the habitues couldn’t kick the habit.


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