Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia: An Appreciation

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Peder Clark. Dr. Clark is a historian of modern Britain, with research interests in drugs, subcultures, health, everyday life, and visual culture. He completed his PhD in 2019 at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and currently holds a position at the University of Liverpool.

Hamilton's Pharmacopiea Title Card
Image courtesy ViceTV.

For the unfamiliar, Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia is a documentary series that follows a young chemist, the titular Hamilton Morris, as he travels the world investigating the eccentric and esoteric cultures of intoxication surrounding the production and consumption of psychoactive substances—both common and uncommon. There is plenty of material here for the average Points reader. Indeed, prior to penning this article, I was surprised to learn via the search function that it hadn’t previously been written about on Points. After the (COVID-delayed) release of the third season earlier this year, it seems an appropriate time to discuss the show’s appeal—not least because Morris has hinted that this may well be his Pharmacopeia’s final run.

The very first episode, screened in 2016, is a good place to start. It has many of the defining features that makes Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia a compelling busman’s holiday for drug historians. In the opening sequence, Morris sets out his pitch: “I’ve been fascinated by psychoactive drugs my whole life. I love to study their chemistry and impact on society. And my work has allowed me to investigate extraordinary substances around the world.… Yet there are still mysteries that remain.”

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Medical waste offers insights into South Africa’s use of pharmaceuticals

Editor’s Note: Today is the last piece in our six-part series of articles discussing drug use in Africa. These articles originally appeared on The Conversation, but we’re republishing them here as well. Today’s article comes from Rebecca Hodes, Director, AIDS and Society Research Unit, University of Cape Town. 

Much of what we know about human history comes from studying things that have been discarded. The archaeology of dumpsites and middens has long informed us about societies and their pasts. This has included how people survived and sustained themselves, what they gathered, made, amassed and discarded.

Histories of rubbish have also shown that beliefs about sanitation, and what makes for a clean environment, change. These changes are, in turn, influenced by developments in technology, forms of governance, and consumer norms.

I conducted a study on an archive of medical materials, collected over three years from public waste sites around South Africa’s Eastern Cape. What I refer to as ‘pharmatrash’ serves as a proxy for which medicines were provided or purchased, consumed, and then discarded. Pharmatrash in post-Apartheid South Africa shows the vast proliferation of medical waste, the result of increased access to healthcare products in both the public and private sectors – and on the formal and informal markets.

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The story of the pharma giant and the African yam

Editor’s Note: Over the next few weeks, we’re going to feature a series of articles discussing drug use in Africa. These articles originally appeared on The Conversation, but we’re republishing them here as well. Today’s article comes from William Beinart, professor at the University of Oxford. 

It was a drug produced in Nottingham in the United Kingdom that led us on a journey to South Africa to visit muthi markets, archives, herbariums and nature reserves.

We spoke with traders, healers, scholars and conservationists to learn more about Dioscorea sylvatica.

Dioscorea is a wild yam. Its name in different languages connects to its appearance – its rough skin resembles a tortoise shell. It’s known as ‘Elephant’s Foot’ in English, in isiZulu ‘ingwevu’, meaning grey/old or ‘ifudu’, meaning tortoise; in Sepedi the name is ‘Kgato’ – ‘to stamp’.

In the 1950s, the yam was heavily exploited by the British pharmaceutical firm Boots for the production of cortisone. But provincial conservation officials in South Africa fought back against the plundering of a wild plant that they recognised was in danger of being exploited to extinction.

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A history of how sedatives took hold in white South Africa

Editor’s Note: Over the next few weeks, we’re going to feature a series of articles discussing drug use in Africa. These articles originally appeared on The Conversation, but we’re republishing them here as well. Today’s article comes from Julie Parle, Honorary Professor in History, University of KwaZulu-Natal.

In the early 1960s, pharmacists and government authorities were of the view that South Africa had experienced key aspects of a ‘pharmaceutical revolution’ over the course of the previous 40 years.

These were fulcrum decades in South African medicines’ history in which newly invented medicines became critically important. Most of the new therapeutic substances in high demand were antibiotics. But the class of drugs comprising synthetic hypnotics, sedatives and tranquillisers were also important.

As early as the 1930s these substances – especially barbiturates – posed challenges to those who sought their control. Enmeshed in multiple issues of chemical, commercial, professional, and regulatory definition, timid controls were proposed in 1937. But even these failed to gain support, facilitating a permissive market for those who could afford the new drugs. These were, by and large, white South Africans.

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“Beyond the Medicines/Drugs Dichotomy: Historical Perspectives on Good and Evil in Pharmacy in Johannesburg, South Africa (5-7 December 2019) – Conference Report

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Dr. David A. Guba, Jr., of Bard Early College in Baltimore and Jamie Banks of the University of Leicester.

Twenty-one delegates from ten countries gathered in Johannesburg, South Africa from 5 to 7 December for the “Beyond the Medicines/Drug Dichotomy: Historical Perspectives on Good and Evil in Pharmacy” conference. Masterfully organized by Thembisa Waetjen (University of Johannesburg) and co-sponsored by the Alcohol and Drugs History Society (ADHS), the Wellcome Trust, the University of Johannesburg, and the University of Strathclyde’s Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare (CSHHH), the conference was held at the stunning facilities of the South Gauteng Branch of the Pharmaceutical Society of South Africa. The event also marked the latest step forward for the “Changing Minds: Psychoactive Substances in African and Asian History” project under the direction of Jim Mills (University of Strathclyde), which works to connect scholars of drugs and alcohol history in China, Africa, the UK, and beyond.

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CFP: Beyond the Medicines/Drugs Dichotomy: Historical Perspectives on Good and Evil in Pharmacy

Editor’s Note: You know you’ve always wanted to visit South Africa. Here’s your chance! Check out this CFP for an exciting conference at the University of Johannesburg this December. Beyond the Medicines/Drugs Dichotomy: Historical Perspectives on Good and Evil in Pharmacy  University of Johannesburg 5-7 December 2019 The dichotomy between pharmacologically-active substances considered legitimate (and …

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Video: Thembisa Waetjen at Cannabis: Global Histories

Editor’s Note: We hope you enjoyed Thembisa Waetjen’s article that we published on Tuesday on how cannabis, or dagga in local parlance, became a “drug” in South Africa. Today you can see Prof. Waetjen discuss her work at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference. Enjoy!  

How cannabis became a “drug” in South Africa

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from Thembisa Waetjen, professor of history at the University of Johannesburg, and is derived from her presentation at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference, which was held from April 19-20, 2018, at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. In it, she argues that international cannabis criminalization was, in part, the result of an appeal made by the South African government in 1923. But what lay behind that appeal? And what were its consequences, locally?

On 31 March last year, the Western Cape High Court of South Africa, in the case of Garreth Prince, ruled as constitutional the personal use of cannabis by an adult in a private dwelling, along with the possession, purchase or cultivation associated with such use. Reflecting liberalizing trends in other parts of the world, this outcome signaled a shift in South Africa’s punitive drugs policy.

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Thembisa Waetjen presents at the Cannabis: Global Histories conference. Photo by Morgan Scott, Breathe Images

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Jan Christiaan Smuts, 1919. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Many people don’t know that African countries, specifically Egypt and South Africa, played a crucial role in international cannabis criminalization in the early 20th century. In 1923, the office of Prime Minister Jan Christiaan Smuts requested that the League of Nations include Cannabis Sativa and Cannabis Indica on the list of ‘dangerous drugs’, to be regulated by global narcotics law. He explained:

“… from the point of view of the Union of South Africa, the most important of all the habit-forming drugs is Indian Hemp or ‘Dagga’.” [1]

What was the local story behind this appeal?

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