Drugs and More — RVW #4

July 2nd, 2007

This is the fourth part in Retread’s Rip Van Winkle series.

There’s a lot to say about just the introduction to Jones. First a mistake — on p. xxxii he implies that heroin is addictive while morphine (described as a pain killer) is not. Unfortunately not true. Both can be addictive and I saw plenty of narcotic addiction as a neurologist (notice I said “can be” not “is”). When I was an Army Doc from ‘68 – ‘70, we had half a million men in Vietnam, and really pure heroin was readily available from Thailand next door. The tour of duty over there was one year. It was estimated that 20 – 30% of the troops used narcotics while there. We were braced for a giant expansion of the addict population over here. It didn’t happen. When shipped back to the states, some mild withdrawal occurred and I saw a few seizures when withdrawal was more severe. Most vets gave it up without much difficultly (assuming that the 20 – 30% figure is close to accurate).

Having used lots of morphine (postoperative pain, auto accidents etc. etc.) I would say that 95% of people receiving morphine or one of its synthetic cousins do NOT like the way it makes them feel (although they are all grateful for the pain relief). What is truly fascinating is that those liking the stuff and those not liking it describe the experience exactly the same way. “I was out of control. I didn’t care about anything. I couldn’t concentrate—I hated it” or “I didn’t have a care in the world. I was just floating, and forgot my troubles—I loved it”. I don’t think neurochemistry—or even chemistry—can explain this. It is the province of novelists and psychiatrists.

Second (still on p. xxxii) although structure determination is easy now, it wasn’t back then (as Jones mentions). However, structure determination taught a lot of chemistry to chemists and certainly sharpened their analytic skills.

A chemist (David Ginsburg from Israel) gave us a series of lectures on the opium alkaloids (I think in the fall of ‘60). I’m not sure just how many but my retranscribed notes on them go for 46 pages of which the first 32 were on the determination of the structure of morphine, and the last 14 concerned its synthesis. As I recall, Woodward
attended all of them.

Parenthetically, it is always a good idea to retranscribe your notes (assuming people still take notes) so that you can understand them years later.

The most interesting statement (again p. xxxii) is “Chemists began the transformation from the hunter-gatherer stage to modern times, in which we routinely seek to use what we know to generate new knowledge.” While certainly true, I think that chemists have always done this. We certainly thought so in the 60s. The further implication is that there is no role for just ‘messing about’ to find new chemistry. I don’t know enough chemical history to say how many surprises there have been, but no one anticipated Buckyballs and nanotubes (as I recall). What about the metathesis reaction? Was that figured out beforehand? In the next installment, I’ll argue that molecular biology is still in the hunter gatherer stage, even though up to a few years ago most molecular biologists didn’t think so.

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