In 1800 cannabis preparations were almost entirely unknown in Britain as only the medical men of the period had any interest in them and few had access to samples of the plant. However, by the 1840s cannabis was being touted as one of the wonder-drugs of the age, as doctors out in the Empire reported excitedly that it was a 'powerful and valuable remedy in hydrophobia, tetanus, cholera and many convulsive disorders'. The Provincial Medical and Surgical Journal seized on these reports and devoted its front-page to the new medicine, and in subsequent decades the plant was used to treat everything from tetanus, to period pains and mental illness. Yet by the 1890s the House of Commons heard that 'The Lunatic Asylums of India are filled with ganja smokers' and the Government of India was ordered to conduct an enquiry into the use there of what one MP called 'the most horrible intoxicant the world has yet produced'. This lecture considers the curious career of cannabis in Victorian Britain and explores the medical entrepreneurs, the moral anxieties and the political agendas behind it.
The transcript and downloadable versions of the lecture are available from the Gresham College website:
Gresham College has been giving free public lectures since 1597. This tradition continues today with all of our five or so public lectures a week being made available for free download from our website. There are currently nearly 1,500 lectures free to access or download from the website.
Professor James Mills
Director of the Centre for the Social History of Health and Healthcare Glasgow (CSHHH) at the University of Strathclyde, where he is Professor of Modern History.
He has published widely on the history of drugs in Britain and its former Empire and the history of sport in south Asia. His books include Cannabis Britannica: Empire, Trade and Prohibition, c.1800-1928 (Oxford University Press 2003) and Cannabis Nation: Control and Consumption in Britain, 1928-2008 (Oxford University Press 2012).