Nowadays, knowing much about heroin as a drug that develops strong addiction with all its consequences, it sounds weird that during 1898 – 1910 heroin was used as a cough suppressant and considered to be non-addictive. Imagine how many people became addicts during those 12 years!

However, let’s talk about the history of heroine the drug.

When was heroin invented? Why was it called “heroine”?

The name “heroin” was assigned to Diacetylmorphine in 1898 by the Bayer scientists who discovered how to produce heroin but this drug has already been known before. It was synthesized in 1874 by an English chemist, Charles Romley Alder Wright, who worked in St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London at that time.

Heroin took its name from German word “heroisch”, which means “heroic, strong”. The person taking heroin is supposed to become “heroic and strong” towards any pain. But this is a deception only, because the person becomes reluctant towards his/her pain instead of heroic and strong one. Can you name a person that cannot control his thoughts and body a hero? – We bet you cannot!

From Opium to Heroin


But let’s dig deeper! Since heroin is a product of opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), its history traces its roots to Mesopotamia of about 3300 BCE.

Sumer's writings of heroin

According to the historical facts, the ancient civilization Sumer was the first to invent writing. Their writings contained the first records of opium cultivation, thus opium history is intended to start here and to be the beginning of heroin history at the same time. The Sumerians grew opium poppy among the other crops. They  extracted opium from poppy and used it for medical purposes.The Sumerians even thought out the name hul gil, which meant a plant of joy. How did they come to idea of using the juice of the poppy seed pods? – No one knows. As well as no one knows if that was the Sumerians’ idea or just an experience shared by their ancestors.

Information about opium spreaded quick and widely. As Benjamin Franklin said: “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” The secret of opium poppy stopped being a secret and began spreading among Sumer’s neighbors to the west and north as far away as Greece. The opium poppy became a subject of sale and extensive use in medicine.

Hippocrates, an ancient Greek physician described opium’s medical and recreational power in his writings. Opium was prescribed as a medicine against insomnia. Later on, being mixed with liquid (water, wine, etc) and injected, it was used to combat nausea and diarrhea.

After about two centuries since the poppy had reached China (approximately the seventh century A.D.) Chinese scholars recommended taking the poppy seeds mixed with bamboo juice and boiled into gruel for healing effect.

Discovering opium went on. There were different combinations and mixtures of the opium with other products.


One of the most famous and popular was Laudanum – a mixture of opium and alcohol, discovered in the 16th century. There are no 100% evidences, but Paracelsus is considered to be its “father”. Actually, Laudanum became famous in 1660, thanks to Thomas Sydenham, an English physician. The opium tincture he made and called laudanum had different components than the initial one. Still it contained opium and alcohol like its early version.

Laudanum was an almost all-purpose elixir allowed to everybody despite the age, sex and class. It was cheap and legal, but really addictive.


The next important “station” of this trip to heroin was the Morphine, named the Morphine, named after the Greek god of dreams, Morpheus.after the Greek god of dreams, Morpheus. The reason was that morphine caused drowsiness.

Morphine was discovered in 1803 by the German pharmacist Friedrich Wilhelm Adam Sertuerner. It was intended to reveal from pain and opium or alcohol addiction but turned out to be even more addictive finally.

71 years had passed before the next remedy from pain and addiction was found. And 24 years later it got the name of Heroin and became available for everybody. Samples of heroin were even distributed via post to try against morphine addiction. Here is where the situation repeats – one addiction was replaced by another one.


Years passed and it was clear that having not any regulation of spreading the heroin, more and more people became addictive.

In 1924 the first federal drug agency – U.S. Treasury Department’s Narcotics Division – finally restricted legal narcotics sales. Addicts could not purchase drugs legally any more. This caused development of illegal street dealers networks and black markets.  

In 1925 heroin was restricted by The Health Committee of the League of Nations, while its close analogues have been extensively spread by 1930 when banned by the Committee.

In 1931 heroin overproduction was restricted. Heroin was produced for medical purposes only and its amount was strictly fixed by The Limitations Convention. Though, it didn’t stop people from administration the drug that was now illegally imported to the USA from China and spreaded at black markets say Chinatown in NYC. Perfect conditions for Mafia development! China was not alone in delivery of heroin to the USA. There were also Mexico, Nigeria, Colombia and the “Golden Crescent” (Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan) involved.

In 1937 German scientists working for I.G. Farbenindustrie AG developed Methadone, a synthetic opioid. It intended to reduce opium shortage in Germany. Methadone was widely used by German soldiers as a pain treatment during the World War II. Its another name – Dolophine, was given by Eli Lilly and Company (USA) in 1947. You might be surprised, but Dolophine (Methadone) was used and is still being used in treatment against drug addiction.

Nowadays heroin has been our common pain. History knows a number of great and talented people among morphine and heroin victims: an outstanding psychiatrist Sigmund Freud, a great actor John Belushi, an amazing musician Kurt Cobain, James Douglas (known as Jim Morrison, “The Doors.”) and many many others. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health conducted in 2015 showed a result of about 670,000 heroin-addictive Americans. We can only try to imagine what would be this year’ results.

The above history shows us how trying to resolve a problem by creating the best pain remedy, scientists and chemists every time caused a new worldwide problem.

All started with the opium, came to Morphine which supposed to be a non-addictive cure for opium addiction. The next but not the last was heroin. In fact, the scientists just invented another drug, that was much more addictive than the previous ones. Methadone replaced the heroin in this fight against pain and drug addiction. This is not the end, definitely! What will be the next?….