William Brooke O’Shaughnessy (1809-1889) is credited with bringing cannabis to the attention of the Western medical community, but that is only one in an admirable list of his achievements. He also invented the modern treatment for cholera, laid the first telegraph system in Asia, and made significant contributions to pharmacology, chemistry, drug clinical trials, science education, and underwater engineering.
Born in Limerick, O’Shaughnessy was a poor Irish boy who strived to better himself through education and at only 18, was admitted to the best medical school in the world at the University of Edinburgh in 1827. His studies included medicine, chemistry, and forensic toxicology. An interesting note: in school he studied anatomy on cadavers provided by the notorious grave-robbers Burke & Hare.
Moving to London in 1829, he set up a forensic toxicology lab and worked with both medical houses and courts, similar to a modern CSI lab. In 1831 he began to study the outbreak of cholera and invented the method still used today of replenishing lost fluids through an I.V., despite the hypodermic needle not being invented yet.
Recruited by another physician to go to Calcutta in 1833 to aid in the Cholera epidemic there, he learned several languages. He helped found the Calcutta Medical College, and became a Professor of Chemistry and Materia Medica. He later rose through promotions to appointment as the chemical examiner for the Raj. He invented a more efficient method of making gunpowder for the military, and wrote several of the earliest textbooks on medical subjects, spreading not only Western medical and scientific practices to the East, spreading the English language as the predominant language of science in the process.
He invented a more efficient method of making gunpowder for the military, and wrote several of the earliest textbooks on medical subjects, spreading not only Western medical and scientific practices to the East, spreading the English language as the predominant language of science in the process.
His studies in chemistry and toxicology led him to compile the first textbooks of Indian medicinal plants the Bengal Dispensatory (1841-42) and the Bengal Pharmacopoeia (1844). He began the study with opium, but when he studied cannabis he experimented with local preparations and uses, finding a treatment for a variety of ailments.
He presented case studies of patients rheumatism, cholera, tetanus, and even infant convulsions. On a furlough from his duties in India, he brought cannabis back to England in 1841. O’Shaughnessy’s instructions on how to make tinctures and extracts of cannabis were widely hailed as a wonder drug for some of the 19th century’s worst illnesses. His treatment procedures spread throughout Europe and America, and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.
During his studies of medicine, he had also studied electromagnetism, and upon his return to India in 1844, he left medical practice and pursue the goal of modernizing communication by inventing new ways to lay telegraph line and connect the whole of India. He also held the position of assayist for the Mint, unifying India’s many financial systems under one monetary currency. He took his success to Europe where he connected lines under water from Ireland to England.
His methods of overcoming treacherous terrain, water, and lightning strikes were the cornerstones of today’s telephone lines strung on poles, grounding rods for electrical systems, and international communication. His work was to the 19th century what the birth of internet is to us today.