Fancy an Iced Oxo and Soda? Or maybe some cocaine pills to treat your children’s toothache? To modern ears these sound as ridiculous as they do disgusting and/or illegal. However, to people in the long nineteenth century (the period from 1789 to 1914), these substances were at the cutting edge of science and intended to improve lives at a time when mortality rates were sky high.

An interdisciplinary conference at Edge Hill University is exploring the use and abuse of substances in this period – from opiates to beef tea – to see how cultural understanding of drugs and addiction has changed over time, and what this can tell us about contemporary issues of drug use, public health, criminality and addiction.

Substance Use and Abuse in the Long Nineteenth Century (Substance18) which takes place at Edge Hill on September 13 and 14, will bring together international researchers from Medical Humanities, the History of Medicine, and Romantic/Victorian literature to examine the changing roles of substances for therapy, medication, and recreation during a period of rapid medical and technological innovation.

By focusing on the century prior to the Defence of the Realm Act (1916), which criminalised the use of opium, cocaine and other substances in Britain, the conference aims to produce more complex and nuanced understandings of substances which have, subsequently, been framed largely through discourses of addiction or illegality.

Dr Laura EastlakeDr Laura Eastlake, who is organising the conference with Dr Andrew McInnes, both from Edge Hill’s Department of English, History and Creative Writing, said: “The long nineteenth century is an interesting era as the use and perception of many substances changed as science advanced. In this period, for example, we saw the first isolation of cocaine, which was hailed as something for a ‘wonder drug’ and a significant medical breakthrough, which was used for everything from a local anaesthetic to dandruff treatment. At the same time, milk was a major killer of babies and often feared as a toxic substance in the public imagination because it could easily transmit tuberculosis. It’s a period of transition in the way people thought about addiction, treatment and substance use and abuse.”

The conference has attracted high profile international speakers, including Professor Susan Zieger from the University of California, a specialist in nineteenth century addiction narratives, Dr Noelle Plack, whose research examines the role of alcohol in the French Revolution, and Dr Douglas Small, who was awarded a prestigious Wellcome Trust Research Fellowship for his project ‘Cocaine and Cultural Mythology’.

Laura said: “Substance18 provides an important historical context for contemporary debates around topics like sports doping and the decriminalisation of certain drugs. It’s not just about whether a substance is legal or illegal, it’s about how culture deals with changing information about drugs.”

While our medicine cabinets might not contain hazardous substances like mercury, strychnine and opium anymore, we are still learning about the long-term health implications of other substances which people once believed had medicinal qualities. Laura and Andrew believe that looking at how people navigated their way through those changes in the nineteenth century, can influence the way we navigate similar changes today with substances like alcohol, tobacco and sugar.

Andrew McInnes“It’s about rethinking what we mean by a ‘substance’,” added Andrew, “so we are looking at things like milk, Bovril and sugar, as well as drugs, and considering how public perception to these has changed over time. It’s also about rethinking the boundaries – moral, legal and medicinal – around the use of these, and other, substances.”

Following the Substance18 conference in September, Laura and Andrew, together with Dr Douglas Small are continuing the substances debate with an interactive exhibition at The Atkinson in Southport from February 2019. Dr Jekyll’ s Laboratory: Science and Medicine in the Nineteenth Century introduces children and families to the fear and wonder that surrounded Victorian advances in anaesthetics, drugs and treatments. Featuring terrifying tools and Gothic tales, the exhibition aims to bring the dark side of the history of medicine to life.

Substance18 is funded by grants from major scholarly and policy organizations including Alcohol Research UK, Past and Present Society, and the British Associations for Romantic and Victorian Studies.

Stories of substance

  • In the nineteenth century, uses for cocaine included toothache drops, local anaesthetic for eye operations, and anti-dandruff shampoo.

  • MP, sportsman and Regency rake, John Mytton, was famous for his alcohol consumption. It was claimed he drank 4-6 bottles of port a day and once drunkenly rode a bear into his drawing room.

  • Bovril was first used to feed Napoleon’s army. The name is derived from ‘bos’ (Latin for cow) and ‘vril’ (a word meaning ‘an electric fluid’ its creator found in The Coming Race, a novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton).

To find out more, visit