WB O’Shaughnessy Introduced Cannabis Sativa to Western MedicineDecember 4, 2018
William Brooke O’Shaughnessy (from 1861 as William O’Shaughnessy Brooke) MD FRS (October 1809, Limerick, Ireland – 8 January 1889, Southsea, England) was an Irish physician famous for his wide-ranging scientific work in pharmacology, chemistry, and inventions related to telegraphy and its use in India. His medical research led to the development of intravenous therapy and introduced the therapeutic use of Cannabis sativa to Western medicine.
Although cannabis was mentioned occasionally by early botanists and explorers describing their travels, little was actually known about cannabis therapy in Europe and America until O’Shaughnessy read a paper to a group of students and scholars of the Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta in 1839. The 40-page paper was a model of modern pharmaceutical research. It included a thorough review of the history of cannabis medical uses by Ayurvedic and Persian physicians in India and the Middle East-some of whom (his local sources) were doubtless in the room.
O’Shaughnessy conducted the first clinical trials of cannabis preparations, first with safety experiments on mice, dogs, rabbits, and cats, then by giving extracts and tinctures (of his own devising, based on native recipes) to some of his patients. O’Shaughnessy presented concise case studies of patients suffering from rheumatism, hydrophobia, cholera, and tetanus, as well as a 40-day-old baby with convulsions, who responded well to cannabis therapy, leaping from near death to “the enjoyment of robust health” in a few days.
O’Shaughnessy appended a paper by his cousin Richard on a case of tetanus cured by a cannabis preparation. He also warned that a peculiar form of delirium may be “occasioned by continual Hemp inebriation,” and cautioned doctors to start with low doses. O’Shaughnessy concludes that these clinical studies have “led me to the belief that in Hemp the profession has gained an anti-convulsive remedy of the greatest value.” (O’Shaughnessy 1839a).
O’Shaughnessy’s paper caused a sensation when it became widely available in England. He had introduced a wonder drug to treat some of the most awful medical conditions of the 19th century. Physicians throughout Europe and America tried cannabis for a huge variety of illnesses. As Dr. Lester Grinspoon noted in Marihuana Reconsidered (1971:15), “Between 1839 and 1900 more than one hundred articles appeared in scientific journals describing the medicinal properties of the plant.”
A similar thing happened when Dr. Tod Mikuriya reprinted O’Shaughnessy’s paper as the lead article in Marijuana: Medical Papers 1839-1972 (1973)-it reinvigorated medical interest in the drug and sparked hundreds more articles on cannabis therapy into the 21st century.
O’Shaughnessy notes one of the fundamental arguments for this medicine: even if it failed at curing the actual root of the illness, “at least one advantage was gained from the use of the remedy — the awful malady was stripped of its horrors”. If the illness was terminal, at least cannabis could enable the physician to “strew the path to the tomb with flowers”.
The argument is not unfamiliar today, and indeed, in a prescient echo of more recent advocates of cannabis’ legalization, O’Shaughnessy also downplays the drug’s supposed negative effects compared to certain other popular legal narcotics. He writes, “As to the evil sequelae so unanimously dwelt on by all writers, these did not appear to me so numerous, so immediate, or so formidable, as many which may be clearly traced to over-indulgence in other powerful stimulants or narcotics, viz. alcohol, opium, or tobacco.