Monthly Archives: March 2014

It Was All About the Pain

“. . . and although the patient had long been a sufferer from dyspnea, chronic bronchitis, and embarrassed heart, we believed that the almost miraculous resurrection which took place would be permanent.  He died, however, on the second day.”   — Cameron MacDowall, “Intra-Peritoneal Injections in Cholera” (1883)[1]

Among the early British and American proponents of subcutaneous hypodermic injection, especially of liquefied morphine, the seeming miracle of instantaneous pain relief sufficed to bring physician and patient into attitudinal alignment.  We are a century removed from the psychoanalytic sensibility that encouraged physicians to explore the personal side of hypodermic injection and to develop strategies for overcoming patients’ anxieties about needle puncture, their “needle phobia.”

There is no need to read between the lines of nineteenth-century clinical reports to discern the convergence of physician delight and patient amazement at the immediate relief provided by hypodermic injection.  The lines themselves tell the story, and the story is all about the pain.  Patients who received hypodermic injections in the aftermath of Alexander Wood’s successful use of Daniel Ferguson’s  “elegant little syringe” were often in extremis.  Here is a woman of 40, who presented with a case of acute pleurisy (inflammation of the membrane around the lungs) in 1867:

The pain was most intense; great dyspnea [difficulty breathing] existed; sharp, lancinating pains at each rapid inspiration completely prostrated the patient, whose sufferings had been continuous for twelve hours.  About one-sixth of a grain of the acetate of morphia was used hypodermically, and with prompt relief, a few minutes only elapsing after its injection before its beneficial results followed.  The ordinary treatment being continued, a recovery was effected in a short time.[2]

Consider this “delicate elderly spinster” of 1879, who presented to her physician thusly:

I found her nearly unconscious, cramped all over body and legs, vomiting violently every minute or two, purging every few minutes, the purging being involuntary and under her.  She was showing the whites of the eyes, and the countenance was changed.  She was certainly all but gone.  Gave at once two-fifths of a grain of sulphate of morphia hypodermically.  She did not feel the prick of the needle in the least.[3]

And here is a surgeon from Wales looking in on a 48-year old gardener in severe abdominal pain at the Crickhowell Dispensary on August 1, 1882:

On my visiting him at 11:30 on the morning of the above date, I found him in great agony, in which condition his wife informed me he had been during the greater part of the previous night.  He implored me to do something for relief, saying he could endure the suffering no longer; and as I happened to have my hypodermic syringe in my pocket, I introduced into his arm four minims of a solution of acetate of morphia.  I then left him.[4]

A bit better off, one supposes – if only a bit – were patients who suffered  severe chronic pain, whether arthritic, gastrointestinal,  circulatory, or cancerous in nature.  They too were beneficiaries of the needle.  We encounter a patient with “the most intense pain in the knee-joint” owing to a six-year-long attack of gout.  Injection of a third of a grain of acetate of morphia was followed by “the most delightful results,” with “the patient expressing himself in glowing terms as to the efficacy and promptness of this new remedy.”  Instantaneous relief, compliments of the needle, enabled him to turn the corner; he “rallied rapidly, having none of the depression and debilitating effects, the resultant of long-continued pain, to recover from, as in former times.”[5]

So it was with patients with any number of ailments, however rare or nebulous in nature.  A 31-year-old woman was admitted to Massachusetts General Hospital in 1883 with what her physician diagnosed as multiple sarcomas (malignant skin tumors) covering her upper arms, breasts, and abdomen; she was given subcutaneous injections of Fowler’s Solution, an eighteenth-century tonic that was one percent arsenic.  Discharged from the hospital two weeks later, she self-administered daily injections of Fowler’s for another five months, by which time the lesions had cleared completely; a year later she remained “perfectly well to all appearance.”  In the 1890s, the decade when subcutaneous injections of various glandular extracts gripped the clinical imagination, it is hardly surprising to read that injection of liquefied gray matter of a sheep’s brain did remarkable things for patients suffering from nervous exhaustion (neurasthenia).  Indeed, its tonic effect comprised “increase of weight, appetite and weight, restoration of spirits and bien-être, disappearance of pain, sexual impotence and insomnia.”  At the other end of the psychophysical spectrum, patients who became manic, even violently delirious, during their bouts with acute illnesses such as pneumonia or rheumatic fever, “recovered in the ordinary way” after one or more injections of morphia, sometimes in conjunction with inhaled chloroform.[6]

Right through century’s end, the pain of disease was compounded by the pain of pre-injection treatment methods.  What the Boston surgeon Robert White, one of Wood’s first American followers, termed the “revolution in the healing art” signaled by the needle, addressed both poles of suffering.  Morphia’s “wonderful effects” on all kinds of pain — neuralgic pain, joint pain, digestive pain (dyspepsia), the pain of tumors and blockages – were heightened by the relative painlessness of injection.  Indeed, the revolutionary import of hypodermic injection, according to White, meant that “The painful and decidedly cruel endermic mode of applying medicines [i.e., absorption through the skin] may be entirely superseded, and the pain of a blistered surface completely avoided.”[7]  When it came to hemorrhoids, carbuncles, and small tumors, not to mention “foul and ill-conditioned ulcers,” hypodermic injections of carbolic acid provided “the only absolute and painless cure [original emphasis] of these exceedingly painful affections.”[8]

And what of the pain of the injection itself?  When it rates mention, it is only to put it in perspective, to underscore that “some pain at the moment of injection” gives way to “great relief from the pain of the disease” – a claim which, in this instance, pertained to alcohol solution injected in and around malignant tumors.[9]  Very rarely indeed does one find references to the pain of injection as a treatment-related consideration.[10]

Recognition of the addictive potential of repeated morphine injections barely dimmed the enthusiasm of many of the needle’s early proponents. Then, as now, physicians devised rationalizations for preferred treatment methods despite well-documented grounds for concern. They carved out diagnostic niches that, so they claimed, were exempt from mounting evidence of addiction.  A Melbourne surgeon who gave morphine injections to hospitalized parturients suffering from “puerperal eclampsia” (convulsions and coma following childbirth) found his patients able “to resist the dangerous effects of the drug; it seems to have no bad consequences in cases, in which, under ordinary circumstances, morphia would be strongly contra-indicated.” A physician from Virginia, who had treated puerperal convulsions with injectable morphine for 16 years, seconded this view.  “One would be surprised to see the effect of morphine in these cases,” he reported in 1887.  It was “as if bringing the dead to life.  It does not stupefy the patients, but renders them brighter.”[11]  A British surgeon stationed in Burma “cured” a patient of tetanus with repeated injections of atropine (belladonna), and held that his case “proved” that tetanus “induced” a special tolerance to an alkaloid known to have serious, even life-threatening, side effects.[12]  Physicians and patients alike stood in awe before a technology that not only heightened the effectiveness of the pharmacopeia of the time but also brought it to bear on an extended range of conditions.

Even failure to relieve suffering or postpone death spoke to the importance of hypodermic injection.  For even then, injections played a critical role in differential diagnosis: they enabled clinicians to differentiate, for example, “choleric diarrhea,” which morphine injections greatly helped, from, respectively, “malignant” (or Asiatic) cholera and common dysentery, which they helped not at all.[13]

To acknowledge that not all injections even temporarily relieved suffering or that not all injections were relatively painless was, in the context of nineteenth-century therapeutics, little more than a footnote.  Of course this was the case.  But it didn’t seem to matter.  There was an understandable wishfulness on the part of nineteenth-century physicians and patients about the therapeutic benefits of hypodermic injection per se, and this wishfulness arose from the fact that, prior to invention of the hypodermic syringe and soluble forms of morphine and other alkaloids, “almost miraculous resurrection” from intractable pain was not a possibility, or at least not a possibility arising from a physician’s quick procedural intervention.

For those physicians who, beginning in the late 1850s, began injecting morphine and other opioids to relieve severe pain, there was something magical about the whole process – and, yes, it calls to mind the quasi-magical status of injection and injectable medicine in some developing countries today.  The magic proceeded from the dramatic pain relief afforded by injection, certainly.  But it also arose from the realization, per Charles Hunter, that an injected opioid somehow found its way to the site of pain regardless of where it was injected.  It was pretty amazing.

The magic, paradoxically, derived from the new scientific understanding of medicinal therapeutic action in the final three decades of the nineteenth century.  The development of hypodermic injection is a small part of the triumph of scientific medicine, of a medicine of specific remedies for specific illnesses, of remedies increasingly developed in laboratories but bringing the fruits of laboratory science to the bedside.  We see the search for specific remedies in early trial-and-error efforts to find specific injectables and specific combinations of injectables for specific conditions – carbolic acid for hemorrhoids and carbuncles; morphine and atropia (belladonna) for puerperal convulsions; whisky and water for epidemic cholera; alcohol for tumors; ether for sciatica; liquefied sheep’s brain for nervous exhaustion; and on and on.

This approach signifies a primitive empiricism, but it is a proto-scientific empiricism nonetheless.  The very search for injectables specific to one or another condition is worlds removed from the Galenic medicine of the 1830s and ’40s, according to which all diseases were really variations of a single disease that had to do with the degree of tension or excitability in the blood vessels.

Despite the paucity of injectable medicines into the early twentieth century, hypodermic injection caught on because, despite the fantastical claims (to our ears) that abound in nineteenth-century medical journals, it was aligned with scientific medicine in ascendance.  Yes, the penetration of the needle was merely subcutaneous, but skin puncture was a portal to the blood stream and to organs deep inside the body.  In this manner, hypodermic injection partook of the exalted status of “heroic surgery” in the final quarter of the nineteenth century.[14]  The penetration of the needle, shallow though it was, stood in for a bold new kind of surgery, a surgery able to penetrate to the very anatomical substrate of human suffering.  Beginning in the late 1880s, certain forms of major surgery became recognizably modern, and the lowly needle was along for the ride.  The magic was all about the pain, but it was also all about the science.


[1] C. MacDowall, “Intra-peritoneal injections in cholera,” Lancet, 122:658-59, 1883, quoted at 658.

[2] T. L. Leavitt, “The hypodermic injection of morphia in gout and pleurisy,” Amer. J. Med. Sci., 55:109, 1868.

[3] W. Hardman, “Treatment of choleraic diarrhea by the hypodermic injection of morphia,” Lancet, 116:538-39, 1880, quoted at 539.

[4] P. E. Hill, “Morphia poisoning by hypodermic injection; recovery,” Lancet, 120:527-28, 1882, quoted at 527.

[5] Leavitt, “Hypodermic injection of morphia in gout and pleurisy,” op. cit.

[6] F. C. Shattuck, “Multiple sarcoma of the skin: treatment by hypodermic injections of Fowler’s solution; recovery,” Boston Med. Surg. J., 112:618-19, 1885; N.A., “Treatment of neurasthenia by transfusion (hypodermic injection) of nervous substance,” Boston Med. Surg. J., 126:273-74, 1892, quoted at 274; T. Churton, “Cases of acute maniacal delirium treated by inhalation of chloroform and hypodermic injection of morphia,” Lancet, 141:861-62, 1893.

[7] R. White, “Hypodermic injection of medicine, with a case,” Boston Med. Surg. J., 61:289-292, 1859, quoted at 290.

[8] N. B. Kennedy, “Carbolic acid injections in hemorrhoids and carbuncles,” JAMA, 6:529-30, 1886.

[9] E. Andrews, “The latest methods of treating carcinoma by hypodermic injection,” JAMA, 26:1159-60, 1897, quoted at 1159.

[10] For one such example, see NA, “The hypodermic injection of mercurials in the treatment of syphilis,” Boston Med. Surg. J., 131:246, 1894.

[11] S. Maberly-Smith, “On the treatment of puerperal convulsions by hypodermic injection of morphia,” Lancet, 118:86-87, 1881;  J. D. Eggleston, quoted in “The treatment of puerperal convulsions,” JAMA, 8:295-96, 1887, at 295.

[12] D. H. Cullumore, “Case of traumatic tetanus, treated with the hypodermic injection of atropia; amputation of great toe; recovery,” Lancet, 114:42-43, 1897.

[13] Hardman, “Treatment of choleraic diarrhea,” op. cit.; C. MacDowall, “Hypodermic injections of morphia in cholera,” Lancet, 116:636, 1880.

[14] On the “heroic surgery” of the final decades of the nineteenth century and the exalted status of late-nineteenth-century surgeons, see P. E. Stepansky, Freud, Surgery, and the Surgeons (Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press, 1999), pp. 23-34 and passim.

Copyright © 2014 by Paul E. Stepansky.  All rights reserved.

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