Better Living Through Chemistry

Browsing through the print edition of The Nation, I saw an advertisement from Common Sense for Drug Policy. CSDP is an organization which advocates education and treatment, rather than criminal penalties and incarceration, as a cure for drug problems. In support of their position, they cited the example of Dr. William Stewart Halsted.

In case you haven’t heard of Dr. Halsted (I hadn’t), he is considered the father of modern surgery. In 1886, he and three other physicians founded Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The CSDP ad pointed out that, throughout Halsted’s tenure at Johns Hopkins, he was maintaining a 180 milligram/day morphine addiction, which replaced his previous cocaine addiction. CSDP cites this as an example of the potential productivity of an addict on a maintenance dose, and laments that today Halsted would be sent to prison instead of inventing modern surgery.

Although I agree with CSDP about the insanity of filling prisons with drug users, that’s not really why this ad appealed to me. In a sort of twisted way, it reminded me of all those sappy, inspirational, and almost always false email messages that are constantly circulating about how someone overcame adversity to accomplish greatness. Now here’s one that’s true, but none of my bullshit-forwarding friends have sent me this one.

In fact, the first story that came to mind as I read this one was the one about the creation of Stanford University, which claims Stanford was endowed by a couple after the president of Harvard treated them rudely when they offered him a contribution. That one was mass emailed by a Dilbertesque VP at work. At least he found out that people don’t totally ignore his email when he got bombarded with Snopes links and even a link to Stanford’s own rebuttal. I wish I’d known about Halsted then. It would have been even more satisfying to respond “Sorry, chief, you blew it on the Stanford story, but Johns Hopkins really was founded by a drug addict”.

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