Legend had it that Inti, Inca god of the sun (upper left), had gifted the coca plant (Erythroxylum coca, right) to Andean civilization. The Incas chewed coca to combat hunger, fatigue, and sorrow. They offered the holy leaves to the gods and bestowed them upon ennobled warriors. In 1859, sun-drenched coca captivated an Austrian botanist and thus crossed the Atlantic, landing in the hands of a bright and inquisitive chemistry student. Albert Niemann immersed coca leaves in alcohol, treated the extract with milk of lime, sulphuric acid, and sodium carbonate, and then vigorously shook the residue in ether. As the liquid evaporated, glittering crystals emerged. Niemann christened the powder “cocaine” and found that it “benumb[ed] the nerves of the tongue.” In 1868, Peruvian surgeon Tomás Moreno y Mayz first suggested that cocaine’s desensitizing power might be applied to medicine (lower left). In 1884, Sigmund Freud introduced cocaine to ophthalmologist Karl Koller, who famously discovered its topical anesthetic effect, first in the eyes of frogs and rabbits, and then in his very own. However, in spite of the drug’s gleaming potential, many physicians who warmed to its light, including Freud and the great surgeon Halsted, were soon scorched by its addictive properties. (Copyright © the American Society of Anesthesiologists’ Wood Library-Museum of Anesthesiology, Schaumburg, Illinois.)

Legend had it that Inti, Inca god of the sun (upper left), had gifted the coca plant (Erythroxylum coca, right) to Andean civilization. The Incas chewed coca to combat hunger, fatigue, and sorrow. They offered the holy leaves to the gods and bestowed them upon ennobled warriors. In 1859, sun-drenched coca captivated an Austrian botanist and thus crossed the Atlantic, landing in the hands of a bright and inquisitive chemistry student. Albert Niemann immersed coca leaves in alcohol, treated the extract with milk of lime, sulphuric acid, and sodium carbonate, and then vigorously shook the residue in ether. As the liquid evaporated, glittering crystals emerged. Niemann christened the powder “cocaine” and found that it “benumb[ed] the nerves of the tongue.” In 1868, Peruvian surgeon Tomás Moreno y Mayz first suggested that cocaine’s desensitizing power might be applied to medicine (lower left). In 1884, Sigmund Freud introduced cocaine to ophthalmologist Karl Koller, who famously discovered its topical anesthetic effect, first in the eyes of frogs and rabbits, and then in his very own. However, in spite of the drug’s gleaming potential, many physicians who warmed to its light, including Freud and the great surgeon Halsted, were soon scorched by its addictive properties. (Copyright © the American Society of Anesthesiologists’ Wood Library-Museum of Anesthesiology, Schaumburg, Illinois.)

Jane S. Moon, M.D., University of California, Los Angeles, California, and Melissa L. Coleman, M.D., Penn State College of Medicine, Hershey, Pennsylvania.