Saturday, September 7, 2013

Drugs, Then and Now.

I love reading books written in the past that are set in present/recent past in relation to the author's life. It's so enlightening to be able to see what people thought about different topics, what they knew scientifically, and to see their social customs through their own eyes.

I just started reading The Sign of Four, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and published in 1890 (Sherlock Holmes - Wikipedia). It begins with a dialogue between Holmes and Watson that sounds as if it could have taken place today. Well, not with the exact same words, but the argument seems essentially the same. 

By Sidney Paget
Watson is disturbed at seeing Holmes injecting himself and finally broached the subject with, "What is it today? Morphine or cocaine?"

Holmes replied that it was cocaine and asked if he would like to try some. Watson replied with a stout refusal, and they proceeded to debate the use of cocaine.

Let's dissect their arguments a little bit. Below each quote are my thoughts. I've highlighted the different parts of the argument with the same color as my thought about that statement. So, the second red sentence is my thought about the red sentence in the quote. The second purple sentence corresponds to the purple sentence in the quote. Etc.

Holmes said, "I suppose that its influence is physically a bad one. I find it, however, so transcendingly stimulating and clarifying to the mind that its secondary action is a matter of small moment."

He acknowledges that the drug has negative physical effects. But he uses it anyhow because of the feeling it gives him. This is typical. He claims that it helps him think. I've heard that one before too.  Certain drugs are said to give one an out of this world feeling (transcendence) and to be stimulating.

Watson answered with, "Your brain may, as you say, be roused and excited, but it is a pathological and morbid process, which involves increased tissue-change, and may at last leave a permanent weakness. you know too, what a black reaction comes upon you. Surely the game is hardly worth the candle. Why should you, for the mere passing pleasure, risk the loss of those great powers with which you have been endowed? Remember that I speak not only as one comrade to another, but as a medical man to one for whose constitution he is to some extent answerable."

He stresses the fact that cocaine has detrimental, long-lasting, permanent side-effects. He points out that it is not worth the risk, and makes his argument personal by warning that the cocaine could damage Holmes' intellect which is his greatest pride. Watson (like anyone making a good argument) validates his speech with relevant credentials. 

We really don't give people in the past enough credit for what they did know. In this case, that would be Sir Arthur since Watson and Holmes are his creations and not real people at all, but he, the author, had to know the pro and con arguments in order to write them into his book. I find it amazing that this argument, which is pertinent today, was actually basically the same then and now.

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