April 9, 2021 – Doctors have been prescribing opiate painkillers since the Bronze Age, and by the time the Civil War broke out in 1861, opiates were the most commonly prescribed medicines in America. 

During and after America’s bloodiest war, in which 750,000 people were killed with millions of survivors left in chronic pain, Army doctors saw opiate medicines as the most “indispensable drug[s] on the battlefield—important to the surgeon, as gunpowder to the ordinance.” Syringe-wielding surgeons gave morphine injections—cutting-edge technology back then—to dull the unbearable pain stemming from gruesome gunshot wounds and last-ditch, hacksaw amputations. Doctors doled out opium pills and morphine shots for practically any ailment. Off the battlefield, opium was a surprisingly effective treatment for diarrheal diseases like dysentery, which often hit troops living in squalid conditions. 


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