Come Pick Your Poison!

It’s hard to believe that not too long ago in our nation’s history it was illegal to manufacture, transport, import, export, or sell alcoholic beverages. Not much earlier, in the late 19th Century, American physicians recommended cocaine for treating hay fever and asthma, and ironically enough, as a cure for alcoholism and addiction to opiates. Things have certainly changed since those times!

Societal perceptions and acceptance of various drugs including alcohol, tobacco, cocaine, opium, and marijuana, have vacillated over the last two centuries. A new traveling exhibition from the National Library of Medicine examines how our views have changed about these “mind-altering” substances. Pick Your Poison: Intoxicating Pleasures and Medical Prescriptions, a six-banner, standing exhibition will be viewable in the Health Sciences Library atrium from March 7 through April 16, 2016.

Below are some fun facts from the National Library of Medicine about our nation’s history with these drugs that will leave you shaking your head:


  • Tobacco leaves were used to treat ulcerated skin, wounds, and burns
  • Settlers rubbed powdered tobacco leaves around their mouths for colds and catarrh
  • Settlers also smoked or chewed tobacco to improve digestion, to ward off hunger and thirst, and for pain relief


Advertisement claiming more doctors smoked Camel cigarettes than any other, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, ca. 1950; Courtesy National Museum of American History [Jackler Collection/Archives]


  • Physicians encouraged wine, beer, and liquor consumption as a treatment for malaria and to improve overall “well-being”
  • Soldiers were issued whisky and quinine to soldiers during the Civil War


  • Opium was used to treat sleeplessness, as well as coughs, smallpox, cholera, malaria, syphilis, dysentery, and tuberculosis
  • Morphine was derived from opium and touted as a treatment for “female troubles” such as nervousness and lethargy


  • Cocaine was used in surgery as a local anesthetic because it prevented pain even when the patient was awake
  • Cocaine was added to medicinal drops to relieve toothache 
Cocaine toothache drops

Advertisement for medicinal drops to relieve toothache, Lloyd Manufacturing Co., 1885; Courtesy National Library of Medicine


  • In the 1930s American officials relabeled cannabis with the Spanish name “marijuana,” to link the drug to Mexican immigrants
  • Marijuana was associated with the urban poor, criminals, political radicals and social misfits referred to as beatniks
  • Cannabis and other popular botanical remedies began to be discredited by physicians, who sought to professionalize the practice of medicine

Hooked!, an anti-drug comic book, 1967; Courtesy National Library of Medicine


To learn more about these intoxicating pleasures and medical prescriptions, stop by the COM 2nd floor atrium on March 15, 2016 between 3:00pm-4:30pm. The Health Sciences Library will be hosting a reception for the grand opening of the exhibit. Come enjoy Pick Your Poison, along with some fun treats celebrating the theme of the exhibit. Please RSVP here!

PYP flyer


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