The medicinal properties of marijuana have long been known in ancient cultures. But it was one man, now regarded by many as the father of Western medical marijuana, who introduced the therapeutic benefits of cannabis to Western medicine.
William O’Shaughnessy was born in 1809 and raised in Limerick, Ireland. He moved to Scotland at the age of 18 to study medicine and chemistry at the University of Edinburgh. In 1833, at the age of 24, he traveled to India as an assistant surgeon in the East India Company and through his work met local Ayurvedic practitioners and Persian physicians who shared their medical knowledge with him. O’Shaughnessy learned of the medicinal properties of many plants, including cannabis.
He began researching the Indian Materia Medica (literally meaning ‘medical substances’). Over the next few years O’Shaughnessy produced the first textbooks in English on Indian medicinal plants. But it was his 1839 paper on cannabis that was to open the eyes of European physicians to the possibilities of a ‘new’ medicine.
O’Shaughnessy’s paper was the result of his meticulous research into the properties and uses of cannabis and was inspired by the knowledge he’d gained from the Ayurvedic and Persian doctors. It was the paper that officially introduced cannabis to European medicine.
At this time, hemp grew abundantly in Europe and was already used in folk remedies for burns, coughs, muscle pain, jaundice and worms. French soldiers had discovered the intoxicating effects of hashish in Egypt and it was becoming a popular recreational drug among artists and poets. French scientists were even beginning to conduct experiments with cannabis as a psychiatric treatment. But the therapeutic properties of marijuana hadn’t as yet been scientifically verified. What O’Shaughnessy did was apply rigorous testing of the drug for specific medical conditions. In other words, he ran the first medicinal cannabis clinical trials.
O’Shaughnessy had experimented with his own cannabis preparations based on traditional remedies. He first tested them on animals and observed that the potent effect was stronger upon carnivorous animals (dogs, cats, pigs and even vultures!) than grazing animals (cows, sheep, goats, monkeys, horse and deer) upon which the drug had a mild effect. When O’Shaughnessy tested cannabis on his patients he discovered the principle uses to be therapeutic. He noted that the positive effects included pain relief, increased appetite and libido, and ‘great mental cheerfulness’.
He presented his paper to a group of scholars at the Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta and included his case studies. He reported that cannabis relieved the pain of rheumatism. It also greatly soothed the muscle spasms of rabies, although did not actually cure the disease. The treatment of cholera he described as ‘promising’ but recommended that doctors prescribe small doses to avoid the ‘cataleptic’ state which he had noted was caused by large quantities of the drug.
But O’Shaughnessy’s greatest success was in the treatment of tetanus. In his paper he referred to fourteen cases of tetanus, of which nine fully recovered. Doses of cannabis resin appeared to halt the progress of the disease. (We now know that rather than being a direct cure for tetanus, the anti-spasmodic effect of the medicine allowed patients a greater chance of recovery). The paper concluded with O’Shaughnessy’s assertion that he had found an ‘anti–convulsive remedy of the greatest value’.
O’Shaughnessy returned to England in 1841 bringing samples of cannabis in the form of ganja (weed) and charras (resin) to the newly established Royal Pharmaceutical Society. He also brought plant specimens of Cannabis Indica to the Royal Botanical Gardens.
His cannabis paper caused a sensation in England. O’Shaughnessy had effectively discovered a ‘miracle’ medicine for some of the worst 19th century diseases. Physicians throughout Europe and America now began testing and experimenting with cannabis as a treatment for all kinds of illness.
Chemists started producing cannabis tinctures from O’Shaughnessy’s recipes. It was known that the tinctures varied in potency from year to year, depending on the source and quality of the crop. Bengal marijuana was recognized to be of the highest quality and chemists were recommended to use this in their production of cannabis extract. For the first time, marijuana was manufactured and marketed under competing brand names.
O’Shaughnessy had also set in motion a competition among eminent chemists to discover the active ingredient in cannabis. (This didn’t actually happen until over a hundred years later with the discovery of the chemical compound THC in Israel in 1964). In 1843 O’Shaughnessy was elected a Fellow Of The Royal Society for his ‘acquaintance with the science of Medicine and Chemistry’.
Strangely, after the great success of his cannabis papers, O’Shaughnessy discontinued his medical investigations into the properties of plant-drugs and became an electrical engineer. He returned to India and spent the next fifteen years inventing and laying an electrical telegraph line system which would eventually span the whole of the Indian subcontinent. He was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1857 for his innovative work on telegraphs.
O’Shaughnessy finally returned to England in 1860 but then disappeared from public life. Nothing is known of the last 29 years of his life. He died in 1889.
Despite setbacks with bad press and modern drug laws, some of cannabis’s main medical uses have remained as William O’Shaughnessy’s research demonstrated: as a sedative, pain-killer and anti-spasmodic.