Heroin: A Hundred-Year Habit

Ian Scott traces the hundred-year history of heroin, from cough medicine to underworld narcotic. 

Bayer's pre-war heroin bottle, originally containing 5 grams of Heroin substance.
Bayer's pre-war heroin bottle, originally containing 5 grams of Heroin substance.

In 1898 a German chemical company launched a new medicine called ‘Heroin’. A hundred years later, this drug is flooding illegally into Britain in record amounts. The latest Home Office figures show a 40 per cent increase in police seizures of heroin. The National Criminal Intelligence Service believes that up to 80 per cent of the heroin currently entering Britain is controlled by Turkish organised criminals based in London and the South-East. How, then, did nineteenth-century science come to bequeath this notorious drug of abuse to twentieth-century crime?

In 1863, a dynamic German merchant called Friedrich Bayer (1825-76) set up a factory in Elberfeld to exploit new chemical procedures for making colourful dyes from coal-tar. German coal-tar dye manufacture expanded rapidly, surpassing English or French production six-fold by the mid-1870s. In the mid-1880s, however, price conventions and raw material availability deteriorated in the German dye industry, so the Bayer company invested in scientific research to diversify its product range. In 1888, a new substance synthesised by Bayer chemists became the company’s first commercial medicine.

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