When it came to pain relief during World War One, the medication of choice was morphine. It was reserved for the most severe injuries as its addictive properties were already known, so much so that morphine addiction was referred to as the soldier’s disease.


Morphine works by relaxing the body, reducing shortness of breath and killing pain. It is derived from opium and has been used as a pain reliever since the early 19th century. By the start of the war, it was available only by prescription. Prior to this, it was sold over-the-counter.


Because it is so highly addictive, morphine addiction is difficult to cure and patients go through many withdrawal symptoms. The majority of addicts will relapse.


Other Early Painkillers

Very few pain medications were available during the early part of the 20th century. Nurses and physicians had some other choices available to them.


Aspirin: Used for pain relief and fever reduction, German pharmaceutical company Bayer lost its trademark on aspirin in 1918. The drug saw widespread use during the Spanish Flu pandemic.


Patent Medicines: Over the counter drugs were available until the law required all drug ingredients be labelled. These drugs were advertised to cure or prevent a variety of ailments, but were not true medications. The secret ingredients contained in the products were generally herbs, alcohol, cocaine or opium. Some were even radioactive.


Laudanum: Derived from opium, laudanum was popular in the 19th century, but is still available today; it is known as a tincture of opium. While it was advertised to cure a variety of ailments including menstrual cramps and colic, it was typically used as a pain reliever or a cough suppressant. Other drugs have been derived from opium throughout the years, including oxycodone that was developed in Germany in 1916.


Cocaine: Cocaine has a numbing effect so it was used primarily for dental procedures but also in the nose and eye before surgeries. It also was used as spinal anaesthesia.


Heroin: Heroin was developed as a cure for morphine addiction. What its developer, an Britiish chemist, didn’t realize, or intend, was that heroin is more addictive than morphine. It was marketed by Bayer which lost the trademark in 1919. It was marketed as a non-addictive alternative to morphine and also as a cough suppressant.


With grateful thanks to Melina Druga, an American freelance journalist and author.  She is fascinated with World War One and how it forever altered the lives of ordinary people. Her current work-in-progress is an historical fiction novel about a Canadian nurse serving in the Great War.  You can find her on Twitter @MelinaDruga.



An ad from the days when morphine was available over-the-counter.

Cocaine was often used for dental ailments.

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A Bayer medicine ad.