“These substances have formed a bond of union between men of opposite hemispheres, the uncivilized and the civilized; they have forced passages which, once open, proved of use for other purposes; they have produced in ancient races characteristics which have endured to the present day, evidencing the marvelous degree of intercourse that existed between different peoples just as certainly and exactly as a chemist can judge the relations of two substances by the reactions.” – Lewin
The use of hallucinogenic substances goes far back into human pre-history. There have been suggestions that even the idea of the deity might have arisen as a result of their weird and unearthly effects on the human body and mind. Narcotic and other drugs have been reported by many writers in many cultures, since the very invention of writing. A truly interdisciplinary scientific interest in narcotics, however, has developed only during the past century.
In 1855, Ernst Freiherr von Bibra published the first book of its kind, Die narkotischen Genussmittel und der Mensch, in which he considered some 17 plant narcotics and stimulants and urged chemists to study assiduously a field so promising for research and so fraught with enigmas.
A review of the scientific literature of the last half of the past century indicates that von Bibra’s suggestions were followed, and an interdisciplinary interest in narcotics began to take hold and grow. It proved to be the spark that eventually engendered today’s extraordinarily extensive and complex literature in many fields on narcotic substances.
Half a century later, in 1911, another outstanding book-in reality, a much expanded and modernized successor of von Bibra’s work-appeared in C. Hartwich’s Die Menschlichen Genussmittel. This volume considered at great length and with interdisciplinary emphasis about 30 vegetal narcotics and stimulants and mentioned many others in passing. Hartwich pointed out that von Bibra’s pioneer work was out of date, that research on the botanical aspects and chemical constituents of these curiously active plants had, in 1855, scarcely begun but that, by 1911, such studies were either progressing well or had already been completed.
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By Richard Evans Schultes
Curator of Economic Botany and Executive Director
Botanical Museum of Harvard University
Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A.