(278570)

A certain fictional British nanny was correct.

A spoonful of sugar helps with the meds but in your case, you need a cup of it. Your illness is real, the pills are big, the shot is small, you’ll feel better when it’s done, and in “Ten Drugs” by Thomas Hager (2019, Abrams Press), you’ll find out how our cures affected more than just our health.

To see it all laid out was a shock.

On a recent trip to Great Britain, Thomas Hager saw an exhibit in which 14,000 pills – the lifetime prescription consumption of an average Brit – were displayed on one 46-six-foot-long table. More shocking, he says, is that Great Britain’s pill-taking “pales in comparison” to that of American consumers.

We can’t live without our meds. Sometimes, we can’t live with them. But which ones changed the world?

First up, says Hager, is opium, with a history that literally circles the globe.

Once upon a time, it was a drug of choice: early Romans could openly buy opium-infused cakes on the streets, but even they knew the addictive properties of the drug. The British traded with opium, it was smuggled into China, even Thomas Jefferson used it. Without it, the invention of syringes might’ve been delayed but opium and its cousin, heroin, have caused mankind a lot of problems, even as they alleviated a lot of pain.

Lady Mary Montagu, a survivor of smallpox, was with her husband in Constantinople in the early 1700s when she noticed that Muslim women had unblemished skin, indicating that they hadn’t contracted smallpox. When she asked how, they showed her their very rudimentary method of smallpox prevention. Lady Montagu was so amazed that she used her own children to prove that their method worked.

Sulfa drugs led to a Nobel Prize for a scientist who had to refuse it. The Pill has its roots literally in roots, and its most logical counterpart began as a heart disease medicine. And as for modern drugs, addiction rates just keep going up.

In his introduction, author Thomas Hager explains how he chose the ten drugs in this book: aspirin and penicillin, for example, are not here; inoculations are. Inclusion and omission, therefore, is quite subjective and perhaps somewhat argument-sparking, so keep that in mind as you read “Ten Drugs.”

The other thing to know here – the thing that makes this book so appealing – is that it’s not just about ten individual drugs. No, Hager unearthed his information for casual readers who aren’t necessarily in medical fields, so the book’s focus is much wider as he takes a time-traveling jaunt around the world to show how drugs have been embraced, evolved, and ejected.

Truly, in the best sense of the word, it’s a trip.

Readers who wonder how we got here, in the opioid crisis and in kerfuffles over the price of prescriptions, will appreciate that, as will folks who like unusual reads. If you’ve taken your medicines today, you’ll want a dose of this. Missing “Ten Drugs” may be a bitter pill to swallow.