Morphine was born 200 years ago in the small lab of an obscure, uneducated pharmacist's assistant. Today, more than 230 tons of the painkiller are used every year.

In 1805 at the age of 21, Freidrich Wilhelm Adam Serturner (1783-1841), experimented with the opium poppy in his spare time. He isolated a compound that had ten times the power of processed opium. He called it morphine, after Morpheus, the Greek god of dreams, for its tendency to cause sleep.

The discovery is being celebrated on May 21.

Serturner spent years experimenting with the morphine -- often on himself, according to a recounting of the history by the University of Chicago. At first, the discovery was not widely recognized. But eventually it caught on.

A brief history:

  • In 1818, French physician Francois Magendie published a paper that described how morphine brought pain relief and much-needed sleep to an ailing young girl. This stimulated widespread medical interest.
  • By the mid-1820s morphine was widely available in Western Europe in standardized doses from several sources, including the Darmstadt chemical company started by Heinrich Emanuel Merck.
  • In 1831, Serturner won a lucrative prize for the discovery.
  • By the 1850s the first reliable syringes were developed and injected morphine became a standard method of reducing pain during and after surgery.
  • By the 1870s physicians had become increasingly aware of morphine's addictive properties.
  • Morphine research led to the development of heroin, promoted by Bayer Laboratories in 1898 as an analgesic and a "sedative for coughs." in 1898. It was named for its "heroic" ability to relieve pain. Production was halted in 1913, by which time Bayer was selling a new blockbuster called aspirin.

Although many other types of pain relievers have been synthesized since Serturner's discovery, "morphine remains the standard against which all new medications for postoperative pain relief are compared," says Jonathan Moss, a professor of anesthesia and critical care at the University of Chicago.

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