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PhD defence Lisanne Walma (UU) – 6 January 2020

PhD Defence Lisanne Walma

Between Morpheus and Mary: The Public Debate on Morphine in Dutch Newspapers, 1880 – 1939

Monday 6 January 2020 – University Hall, Domplein 29 at Utrecht



This dissertation focuses on the development of the Dutch public debate on morphine between 1880 and 1939. Around 1900 morphine was known on the one hand as a medical ‘Morpheus’: an important painkiller. On the other, people knew the substance as ‘Mary’, a street drug used and sold nonmedically. Between 1900 and 1939 concern about the nonmedical use of narcotics greatly increased. Using an analysis of Dutch digitized newspapers, I show how morphine kept its medical reputation during this time.


First, morphine’s historical reputation safeguarded its medical status in the Dutch public debate. Before 1900 multiple types of recognizable morphine use already featured in Dutch discourse, which prevented emerging stories about addiction and trafficking from becoming central to the drug’s story. Second, between 1900 and 1939 morphine’s medical and nonmedical sides both developed in favor of morphine’s overall medical reputation. Emerging depictions of morphine’s palliative use supported morphine’s reputation as an important and universal medical drug. Morphine’s nonmedical uses became associated with only limited social harm. They mostly featured harm to specific individuals, foreign users who were not considered a model for Dutch society, or user contexts where cocaine and heroin featured in a more prominent or harmful manner.


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