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Talking Points: Sara Black

Points is delighted to welcome Dr. Sara Black, Assistant Professor of History at Christopher Newport University, for an interview about her book Drugging France: Mind-Altering Medicine in the Long Nineteenth Century (McGill-Queens University Press, 2022). Drugging France was recently awarded the American Historical Association’s J. Russell Major Prize in French history.

Drugging France Cover Image

Please tell readers a little bit about yourself.


I am a historian of medicine in modern France working on the histories of drugs, gender, and public health. I teaches courses on medical history, French history, global history, and the history of gender and sexuality at Christopher Newport University. My research interests include urban history, hygiene and public health, gender and sexuality, and criminality.

 What got you interested in the history of alcohol, drugs, and pharmacy?


I have always been really fascinated with historical pharmacy museums, like the apothecary shop in Colonial Williamsburg or the German Apothecary Museum in Heidelberg Castle. Looking at the rows and rows of jars containing all sorts of strange ingredients and bizarre remedies I found myself thinking how different life would have been for the people who frequented these old pharmacies and didn’t have access to our modern medicines.


What motivated you to write this book specifically?


When I began researching this book, there were relatively few histories of drugs in France. These histories tended to focus on issues of addiction and deviance to explain how drugs came to be demonized as dangerous substances to be regulated by the state. Now, while addiction and deviance are certainly part of the story, my book asks what I find to be a more interesting question: which is, how did these drugs become such commonplace commodities in the first place? I was particularly interested in the medical history of these drugs. So, rather than starting with addiction or pleasure seeking, Drugging France begins by tracing the normalization of these pain-relieving, mind-altering drugs in the medical marketplace and then within French society as a whole. So it brings the medical and cultural histories of drugs together.


Explain your book in a way your bartender won't find boring.


In modern society, swallowing a pill to treat pain, anxiety, or depression has become a normal part of everyday life. Most people don’t really give it too much thought. We have come to accept pharmaceutical solutions to these problems. Historically, however, the efficient management of pain was not something that French citizens could take for granted. For millennia, pain was an inevitable part of life. Then, everything changed. In the nineteenth century, France was a nation on drugs. An aching tooth could be soothed with opium extract or painlessly extracted with a few inhalations of chloroform. Pain was no longer an inevitable burden. People could now have a measure of control.


Drugging France looks at the entangled medical and cultural histories of six psychotropic drugs: opium, morphine, cocaine, hashish, chloroform, and ether. All of these drugs have the capacity to control pain, to produce pleasure, and to modify consciousness. At various points, they served as crucial technologies of medical therapeutics, tools for igniting sexual passion, and conduits for self-exploration. These drugs were remarkably versatile commodities. From the pharmacy counter to the boudoir, from the asylum to the courtroom, from the battlefield to the birthing chamber, psychotropic drugs reconfigured how individuals perceived and experienced their own minds and bodies. By examining the expansion and normalization of drug consumption in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, I chart the emergence of what I like to call France’s psychotropic society—a society founded upon a new norm: the chemical enhancement of modern life. In this society, individuals increasingly turned to psychotropic drugs to regulate their minds and bodies.



Did you uncover anything particularly interesting or surprising during your work on this project?


There were many surprises while researching this book, but one that comes to mind is how prominent self-experimentation was for doctors as a research methodology. So, for example, in 1847 when the members of the Academy of Medicine found out that ether could be used to relieve the pain of surgery and render patients unconscious, they decided they had to try it for themselves. All over Paris, doctors and medical students inhaled the gas and then jabbed each other with scalpels and poked each other with pins to see if it hurt or not. Accounts of this self-experimentation filled the sessions of the Academy of Medicine and the Academy of Sciences. This was serious research designed to determine what effects ether had on the human body and what a safe dose of the gas might be. Many of these researchers proclaimed that they were sacrificing themselves in the name of science, but of course this was a highly entertaining and amusing venture both for the self-experimenters and for onlookers who watched their colleagues in a state of semi-consciousness sometimes seeing visions or dancing around the room.


Another thing I found surprising was how much people wrote about sex and drugs. Opium and cocaine gained a reputation as aphrodisiacs in the popular imagination. So much so, that prostitutes in Montmartre would offer these drugs alongside a menu of other services on offer, fusing sex and drugs together as mutually reinforcing pleasures. Doctors actually did research on the aphrodisiac effects of opium on the human body—some of it self-experimentation—and somewhat paradoxically, they found that with extensive use opium actually inhibited men’s and women’s sexual physiology. This caused a lot of anxiety for people who were concerned about the degeneration of the French population. France’s population was declining in the late-nineteenth century, so the police, doctors, and social reformers were concerned about the influence of drug use and addiction, not only on public morality but on the sexual vitality of the French nation.


What do you think is the most important takeaway from your book?

My book reframes the history of drugs and the making of modern society. It does not treat the history of drugs primarily as the rise of a social crisis. Instead, it documents the production of a new biomedical norm. It explores the history of drugs in nineteenth-century France as a crucial step in the development of France’s modern pharmaceutical economy. Rather than fixating on regulation, criminalization and deviance, it demonstrates the ways in which psychotropic consumption became an integral practice of everyday life.


Has this research led to your next endeavor—what else are you working on?

My next project looks at the history of public health in France in the early twentieth century. I am currently working on an article that explores how the Franco-American tuberculosis campaign during the war developed a multifaceted traveling education program designed to target children as agents of public health.


Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the future of the field (of alcohol, drugs, and pharmacy history)?


 I am excited to see more work come out that weaves the medical and cultural histories of drugs together. Medical journals and archives are such rich sources of information about the history of drugs and I look forward to seeing even more scholarship that taps into these fascinating sources.



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