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Heroin – diacetylmorphine or morphine diacetate – is derived from morphine, one of several narcotic products of the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum.

Morphine was first isolated in 1804 by Friedrich Sertürner. This is thought to be the first time in history that a natural plant alkaloid had been isolated. Sertürner first distributed it in 1817; it was first commercially sold in 1827 by Merck, which at the time was a single small chemists’ shop.

Diacetylmorphine[heroin] was first synthesized in 1874 by C. R. Alder Wright, an English chemist working at St. Mary’s Hospital Medical School in London, but it was not developed as a pharmaceutical at that time.

It was independently re-synthesized in 1897 by another chemist, Felix Hoffmann, working at the Aktiengesellschaft Farbenfabriken (today the Bayer pharmaceutical company) in Elberfeld, Germany.  

Hoffmann was chemically treating morphine with the objective of producing codeine, also a constituent of the opium poppy, but less potent and less addictive than heroin. Instead, the experiment produced an acetylated form of morphine – heroin  one and a half to two times more potent than morphine itself.

From 1898 through to 1910, Bayer marketed diacetylmorphine under the trademark name Heroin as a non-addictive morphine substitute and cough suppressant. The drug was sold as a cure for morphine addiction before it was discovered that it rapidly metabolizes into morphine. As such, diacetylmorphine is in essence a quicker-acting form of morphine. (The company was embarrassed by the new finding, which became a historic blunder for Bayer.)

Diacetylmorphine is prescribed today in some parts of the world [under the chemical name diamorphine] as a strong analgesic for the treatment of acute pain (severe physical trauma, myocardial infarction, post-surgical pain, etc.) and chronic pain, including end-stage cancer and other terminal illnesses. In other places it is more common to use morphine or other strong opioids in these situations.

(Sources: relevant articles in Wikipedia)

Print of the opium poppy: Otto Wilhelm Thomé – Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz 1885, Gera, Germany [Wikimedia].

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