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When you hear about cocaine, the first thoughts are linked to notions such as “high risk drug”, “dangerous stimulant”, “addicts” and so on, but back in the days, cocaine was seen from another perspective and even had medical breakthrough importance.

 

“In 1858, Albert Niemann, a student at the University of Gottingen, processed coca tree leaves and obtained cocaine. He tested the result on himself and observed that his ability to distinguish between hot and cold was impaired, and more importantly the tongue became numb.”

 

In 1858, Albert Niemann, a student at the University of Gottingen, processed coca tree leaves and obtained cocaine. He tested the result on himself and observed that his ability to distinguish between hot and cold was impaired, and more importantly the tongue became numb. The study stopped here with no foreseeable application. In 1880, Vasili von Anrep, a pharmacologist, discovered the dilatation of the pupil due to the same substance. Both failed to understand the anesthetic properties and the British Medical Commission called cocaine a “poor substitute for caffeine”.  However, the substance started to be produced and distributed to doctors for testing purposes.

 

Freud was the one to bring cocaine in the attention of the medical world, even if it was in an indirect manner. He substituted a friend’s morphine treatment with that of cocaine. This particular swap was effective for some time but eventually intoxication from much too large dosages appeared and its effects tortured the patient for the last seven years of his life. Freud’s fascination with cocaine continued despite this unfortunate outcome and the official belief that cocaine was just a stimulant as coffee or tea. This was not a matter to be left unattended, so he got in touch with his former colleague, Carl Koller, which was interested in ophthalmology and had realized the great need for a local anesthetic for eye surgery. Freud proposed to experiment with cocaine and document its properties. Koller also invited Dr. Gaertner to join the study.

 

“He substituted a friend’s morphine treatment with that of cocaine. This particular swap was effective for some time but eventually intoxication from much too large dosages appeared and its effects tortured the patient for the last seven years of his life.”

 

To make a long story short, Freud left the two doctors to conduct the experiments on their own while he attended his own emergencies, of a romantic nature, and went to Hamburg. In this time Koller observed the numbing effect of cocaine and had a revelation: he had been carrying the much needed eye anesthetic in his pocket. This being said, Koller first used a 2% cocaine solution on a guinea pig’s eye in order to test his assumption. Needless to say, the poor animal didn’t even blink while Koller poked or scratched its cornea.

 

The human trials were conducted on Koller and Gaertner themselves. After administering the cocaine solution to one another they immediately saw the effects. Gaertner noted: “I can’t feel a thing. We could make a dent in the cornea without the slightest awareness. I rejoice that I was the first to congratulate Dr. Koller as a benefactor to mankind.”*  

 

R.F.I.

*Winters, Robert. Accidental Medical Discoveries: Tales of Tenacity, Sagacity, and Plain Dumb Luck, Denmark, 2013, pp. 51  

1 comments on The anesthetic cocaine triangle: Freud, Koller and Gaertner
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    Roxanne July 13th, 2016 at 10:11 pm
    The history of cocaine: first it was a “poor substitute for caffeine”?? What kind of coffee were they drinking back then? :)) Ah, dear old Freud and his romantic emergencies...
    Reply