William O’Shaughnessy & The Start of Cannabis Medicine

The idea of medicinal marijuana has blossomed out in the last several years, opening up new markets, changing regulatory restrictions and legal mandates, and showing that popular opinion can easily change over time. How it started in the first place is not a story known to all. In fact, most people have no idea that it was an Irishman named William O’Shaughnessy who brought cannabis medicine to the Western world.

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Cannabis in history

Before getting into recent history, let’s go back to ancient times. The history of cannabis use as a medicine goes back thousands of years with tons of natural medicine traditions using the plant all over the world for different purposes. In Ayurveda it was used to increase appetite and digestion; to decrease diarrhea, as well as other gastrointestinal issues; as an anti-spasmodic and anti-convulsant; for nervous system issues; skin infections; as an aphrodisiac, or to calm sexual feelings (in later stages of the application); issues with genital and urinary tract function; respiratory issues; infectious diseases; and a host of other problems. If you look at what’s being covered here, it includes ailments of nearly every kind that were being treated by cannabis.

In Traditional Chinese Medicine, cannabis seeds were used as laxatives – although they were simultaneously used to help stop diarrhea, to alleviate thirst, and relieve flux. If it seems weird that cannabis was employed for opposing issues (constipation and diarrhea), this could be explained by a normalization effect on a person’s liver. Repeated vomiting was also treated with cannabis seeds, and regular use of these seeds was said to “render the flesh firm, and prevent old age.”

The Chinese also supposedly used cannabis as an antidiabetic by boiling the seeds in water to make a paste. Cannabis was used for skin ailments, ulcers, wounds, hair loss, and diseases of the lymph nodes which included degenerative, incurable, and intractable illnesses. These are just some examples of how Traditional Chinese Medicine used cannabis. Though many texts have not been made available to the English-speaking world, it is known that cannabis was used in medical applications for at least 1,800 years, and possibly as long as 4,000 years.

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cannabis ayurveda

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Cannabis use was seen in Egyption times as well. Called shemshemet, it was used to treat insomnia, nausea, internal hemorrhoids (by way of suppositories), and even eye conditions like glaucoma because of its strong anti-inflammatory properties, which help bring down eye pressures. This anti-inflammatory effect made it good for all kinds of ailments that involve inflammation. Cannabis plant residue has been found on Egyptian artifacts dating back over 4,000 years, and medical marijuana is mentioned in several ancient Egyptian texts including:

  • The Ramesseum III Papyrus (1,700 BC)
  • Eber’s Papyrus (1,600 BC) (This is the oldest known complete text, and thought by many to be a reprint of a text from as long as 1,500 years before this one was made.)
  • The Berlin Papyrus (1,300 BC)
  • The Chester Beatty VI Papyrus (1,300 BC)

By 1,000 years ago, medicinal marijuana use was so widespread in Egypt, that texts found from that time actually encourage citizens to plant their own medicinal cannabis for their own personal use, or to use for trade.

Cannabis history & the Anglo-Saxons

I feel it would be remiss not to mention the history of cannabis in the location that William O’Shaughnessy specifically came from, since this sheds some light on the cannabis culture that existed in his part of the world. It is not one of the more popular or well known cannabis stories, but it is certainly relevant here.

It is thought by many that a nomadic Indo-European tribe – called the Scythians – brought the plant to Eastern Europe around 500 BC. From there it seems likely that Germanic tribes brought it over to Germany, and when the Anglo-Saxons invaded Britain during the 5th century, its thought that the plant at this time entered the British region. Cannabis has a mention in the ‘Anglo-Saxon Herbal’, also known as the ‘Old English Herbal’, which is an illustrated book of botanical medicine attributed to 4th century writers, and which has many similarities to Ayurveda.

This indicates that it was being used for medical treatments, however, what it really became known for in this region, was its fiber. Hemp fiber was used for all sorts of things, particularly by the military. Supplies like rope and sails were made from hemp, for which Russia had been the main supplier. In fact, much like the US grow laws that were enacted in colonial America, and which forced farm owners to grow cannabis for hemp, so too was the case in Britain when in 1533 King Henry VIII also forced landlords to use at least part of their land to grow hemp.

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medicinal cannabis

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This was made more intense by Elizabeth I who actually started leveraging fines on landlords who did not comply. One of the issues with growing hemp in that part of the world is that it’s not the best climate for it, and this eventually led to Britain importing most of its hemp from Canada and other British colonies. It seems that as time went on, the medical value of the plant was practically lost to its industrial uses. It wasn’t until the 1800’s that William O’Shaughnessy re-discovered cannabis medicine, and brought it into focus in Western medicine.

Who is William O’Shaughnessy?

Born in Limerick, Ireland in 1808, William Brooke O’Shaughnessy studied chemistry and forensic toxicology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, graduating in 1829. At the age of 22, in 1931, while working with cholera patients, O’Shaughnessy helped create the basis for IV replacement therapy. This was done through analyzing the blood of cholera patients and finding a need for more oxygen, as well as finding that they had deficiencies in water, salt, and free alkali, which was improved through infusions of salt.

A couple years later, in 1933, O’Shaughnessy moved to Calcutta, India, as part of the British East India Company, after being rejected for Professor of Medical Jurisprudence at the University of London. And it was here that O’Shaughnessy began his inquest into medical cannabis.

O’Shaughnessy had not set out specifically on the course of cannabis medicine, and in fact, focused on several subjects like chemistry, galvanic electricity, underwater conduction, and botanical pharmacology – which spawned his work on medical marijuana. O’Shaughnessy published his first papers on the use of cannabis medicine and its applications while in Calcutta. In his research he examined folk uses of the plant to validate the information coming from natural medicine traditions, he also found new applications for the plant, and encouraged use of it by his readers for many different purposes including acute rheumatism, as a sleep aid, digestive problems, as a treatment for pain, and a host of other ailments.

Simply writing about these things isn’t what got him recognized, however. He gained popularity instead through real world applications. One of his first big breakthroughs publicly was in being able to quell the rheumatic pain and convulsions of an infant by using cannabis. At approximately 40 days old, the child was unable to eat and was wasting away, as no standard treatment was helping. The parents’ were so distressed that they agreed to the treatment, and cannabis tincture was placed on the baby’s tongue. It eased the convulsions, but greater doses had to be used consequent to tolerance. The infant, however, made a full recovery.

When he later returned to England, he found even greater public success when he was able to quiet the extreme muscle spasms caused by tetanus and rabies, which he did using a cannabis resin. In terms of tetanus, it didn’t rid the sufferer of the disease, but it did greatly reduce symptoms. About tetanus, O’Shaughnessy stated that it was: “next to hydrophobia (rabies), perhaps the most intractable and agonising of the whole catalogue of human maladies.” At that time, having tetanus meant violent convulsions and eventually death, making O’Shaughnessy’s cannabis treatment a godsend to sufferers.

In 1842 he published Bengal Dispensatory and Pharmacopoeia which dedicated 25 pages to the use of cannabis in medicine. This stands as one of the most comprehensive research outputs related to cannabis for that time period.

What about now?

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William O’Shaughnessy cannabis medicine

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I think it’s fair to say that O’Shaughnessy would have been double face-palming if he knew just how sideways all his findings went in the upcoming century. While O’Shaughnessy set off a flurry of new research into cannabis medicine and the advent of tons of medical products, all of this was suppressed and then forgotten in light of changing global cannabis laws.

It started with the US 1937 Marihuana Tax Act, and led to the Single Convention on Narcotic Substances treaty, and an essential global ban on both medical and recreational cannabis, as well as hemp production. Over time, the idea of cannabis medicine became non-existent. In fact, not only did it become non-existent in Western medicine and illegal in Eastern medicine, but it became disliked – even hated – with all that accumulated medical evidence being either completely forgotten, or no longer believed.

It took till the 1900’s and researchers like Raphael Mechoulam to re-discover cannabis medicine (which was still suppressed for many decades), and then the eventual easing of laws in different global locations as the expressed danger of cannabis was seen more and more to be unrealistic, while its useful properties were once again brought to light.

Right now in Ireland, O’Shaughnessy’s home country, cannabis is illegal to posses or use with no decriminalization or personal use laws present. Punishments include involuntary community service, fines, and jail time depending on the circumstances of the case. Selling and supply crimes are predictably illegal with prison sentences of up to 10 years for offenders. Cultivation is illegal as well.

Even when it comes to medical cannabis, Ireland only finally updated its laws in 2019, and only to permit a 5-year long research program that allows very limited access to medical cannabis, and only for a very small number of issues. William O’Shaughnessy established some of the very applications of cannabis medicine being researched now, and his own home country still does not pay attention.

Conclusion

It is now getting close to 200 years after William O’Shaughnessy published his Bengal Dispensatory and Pharmacopoeia, and around 4,000 years since the use of cannabis was determined in some locations. Yet now, in 2021, we’re still arguing the legalities and uses of it. Yes, William O’Shaughnessy might have been the father of modern cannabis medicine, but only now is the Western world really taking notice.

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