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High society – TU prof talks 1800s opiate addiction on C-SPAN3

It’s not that it was cool to get high on opiates in the 19th century. It was doctor’s orders. And it was usually women who sought it.

In a nationally televised lecture on C-SPAN3 airing Monday at 3:10 p.m., Towson University History Associate Professor Elizabeth Gray explains the epidemic of opiate addiction in the 1800s. She says society frowned on men seeking medical treatment, but women were considered the weaker sex. Doctors often prescribed laudanum, a form of opiates, for pain. The women got hooked.

Since it was not socially acceptable for women of the time to drink, she says, it was easier for them to explain opiate use: doctor’s orders.

“The idea was that, from a financial standpoint, not everybody could afford to go to a doctor,” Gray explains. “The most common way to become addicted, early on, is that someone is in pain, they seek out a doctor, the doctor recommends that they take it, and the idea is that three years later, they’re still taking it.”

Gray’s lecture, which chronicles a quick history of addiction to alcohol versus laudanum, was recorded in her Towson classroom in September and features her own students in discussion.

Gray, who focuses her research on American cultural history, is writing a book-length study of drug addiction in early America. She has a particular interest in the history of addiction.

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