Cocaine, also known as benzoylmethylecgonine, is an extremely powerful nervous system stimulant. It is also very addictive, especially when abused for extended periods of time. The name “cocaine” comes from the conjugation of two terms: “coca” from the tropical coca plant (whose leaves are harvested to manufacture cocaine) and the scientific suffix “ine” which refers to alkaloid chemical compounds.
Coca leaf has been used by people for more than 1,000 years. Indigenous populations used to chew the leaves for their medicinal value. However, it was not until 1855 when the German chemist Friedrich Gaedcke isolated the cocaine alkaloid from coca leaves. Prior to 1855, such isolation was impossible for two main reasons. First, it was difficult for chemists to obtain quality samples of coca leaves because they would degrade during their long transit from jungle to laboratory. Second, knowledge of chemistry was not advanced enough.
Ever wonder how cocaine is made? In 1860, another German chemist named Albert Niemann developed an improved purification process. In fact, his process served as the basis for his PhD dissertation. After Niemann developed his process, another scientist named Richard Willstatter was able to synthesize and elucidate the very first cocaine molecule in 1898.
As German chemists perfected the development of cocaine from coca leaves, German doctors began using cocaine as a local anesthetic. In one well known experiment, a German doctor applied cocaine eye drops to his own eyes to see if cocaine had an ophthalmologic application. To prove that the cocaine worked, the doctor pricked his own eyes with needles. His findings were later reported to the Heidelberg Ophthalmological Society in 1884.
In 1859, an Italian doctor named Paolo Mantegazza, had the opportunity to personally observe how indigenous Peruvians used the coca leaf. After some self-experimentation, Dr. Mantegazza wrote a paper wherein he argued that coca had medicinal applications for the treatment of flatulence, “furred tongue in the morning,” and whitening of the teethe.
After reading Dr. Mantegazza’s paper, a chemist named Angelo Mariani realized that coca had huge potential for profiteering. As a result, he manufactured and sold a wine called “Vin Mariani” that was made with coca leaves. By mixing coca leaves with wine, the wine became infused with cocaine. As is already widely known, the original recipe for Coca-Cola also included a “pinch of coca leaves.” By 1903, caffeine was used as a replacement for cocaine.
In 1885, the US pharmaceutical Parke-Davis promised its cocaine products would “supply the place of food, make the coward brave, the silent eloquent and render the sufferer insensitive to pain.” These products included injectable cocaine (which was sold with an intravenous needle), cocaine-laced cigarettes, and powder cocaine.