top of page
  • Writer's pictureFibonacciMD

The History of Heroin, the “Nonaddictive” Substitute for Morphine.

Medical Trivia

During the American Civil War many soldiers were treated with morphine which led to a wave of morphine addiction in the second half of the 19th century, and a search to try to find safer alternatives.


In 1874, Charles Romley Alder Wright, a chemist looking for a nonaddictive pain killer, boiled anhydrous morphine alkaloid with acetic anhydride and produced an acetylated form of morphine, called diamorphine (or diacetylmorphine).  There was not much interest in this compound until 1897.  In that year Heinrich Dreser, the head of the  pharmaceutical division at Bayer Company, asked chemist Felix Hoffman to come up with a way to synthesize the compound as a result of some favorable reports from investigators and a growing interest in the drug by the medical profession. (Hoffman had just synthesized aspirin two weeks before this.) Hoffman came up with a way to synthesize the compound commercially.  After trying the drug, a chemist at Bayer supposedly said it made him feel heroic (heroisch in German) and because of that it was decided to call the drug heroin.


It was advertised by Bayer as a nonaddictive substitute for morphine and could be used for a variety of disorders, especially cough, even in children.  Heroin was also used to combat codeine and morphine addiction.  Bayer heroin and aspirin were often advertised together. 


Unfortunately, heroin is rapidly metabolized into morphine and other active morphine metabolites inside the body.  In the early 1900s the problematic nature of heroin came to be noticed and soon heroin addiction replaced morphine addiction as a major social problem.  In 1910, Bellevue Hospital in New York City admitted its first heroin addict but five years later it admitted 425 heroin addicts. The Public Health Service Hospitals in the United States discontinued dispensing heroin in 1916.  In 1920 the House of Delegates of the American Medical Association recommended “that heroin be eliminated from all medicinal preparations and that it should not be administered, prescribed, nor dispensed; and that the importation, manufacture, and sale of heroin should be prohibited in the United States.” In 1913 Bayer stopped manufacturing heroin and in 1924 heroin was banned in the U.S. 

An interesting bit of trivia is how the word junkie came into being to describe heroin addicts.  It was purportedly coined due to addicts going through junkyards looking for scrap metal to sell to obtain money.  



bottom of page