Journal of the California Cannabis Research Medical
The Remarkable W.B. O'Shaughnessy
By Michael R. Aldrich, Ph.D.
Many medical marijuana users know that Dr. William Brooke O’Shaughnessy
(1809-1889) introduced cannabis to modern Western medicine, but know
little else of this Irishman’s extraordinary life. In addition
to his pioneering work on cannabis therapy, O’Shaughnessy invented
the modern treatment for cholera, laid the first telegraph system in
Asia, and made significant contributions to pharmacology, chemistry,
drug clinical trials, science education, and underwater engineering.
There has never been a full biography of him, yet his genius shines
through 19th-century science in all those fields.
O’Shaughnessy was born in Limerick in 1809 (or late 1808), and
displayed such intelligence during his schooling that he was admitted
to the best medical school in the world at the University of Edinburgh
in 1827 —quite unusual for a poor Irish lad barely 18 years old.
At Edinburgh he studied medicine, chemistry, and forensic toxicology
with Sir Robert Christison, and anatomy with Professor Robert Knox,
dissecting cadavers supplied by the infamous graverobbers Burke and
Treatment for Cholera, 1831
Graduating MD from the University of Edinburgh in 1829, O’Shaughnessy
tutored chemistry students for a year, then moved to London, but was
unable to get a license to practice medicine there. So he set up his
own forensic toxicology lab, doing chemical analyses of blood, feces,
urine and tissue for doctors, hospitals, and the courts. (Need work?
Invent your own CSI lab.)
An outbreak of cholera in 1831, possibly introduced to England by soldiers
returning from India, led O’Shaughnessy to investigate the blood
of cholera victims. At the time it was not known what caused cholera,
an insidious disease that kills by dehydration due to uncontrollable
diarrhea and vomiting.
(Vibrio cholerae was first isolated in 1883 by the German scientist
Robert Koch. Its primary vector of transmission is drinking sewage-contaminated
water, as shown by John Snow in 1849. Snow plotted the incidence of
cholera in London on a map, discovered that it clustered around public
water pumps, and when he famously broke the handle off the Broad Street
pump, the epidemic in that neighborhood subsided. It was the beginning
of modern epidemiology.)
On December 29, 1831, O’Shaugh-nessy sent to The Lancet “one
of the shortest and yet most significant letters ever sent to the journal” (Coakley
1992:151), presenting the results of his blood analyses. He showed
that “the copious diarrhoea of cholera leads to dehydration,
electrolytic depletion, acidosis and nitrogen retention,” and
that “treatment must depend on intravenous replacement of the
deficient salt and water” (Coakley: 152).
In January, 1832, O’Shaughnessy published the details of his
discovery, and doctors began testing his suggestion—successfully
saving the lives of nearly half their patients (Moon 1967, Gorman 1971).
Intravenous electrolyte-replacement fluid therapy is still the modern
treatment for cholera, using the same principle as contemporary athletes
who drink Gatorade to prevent dehydration. Moreover it was one of the
first experiments in treatment by i.v. injection, before the invention
of the hypodermic needle. It was the 19th-century equivalent of finding
a cure for AIDS without knowing what HIV was.
Off to India, 1833
O’Shaughnessy’s cholera findings came to the attention
of Sir William Russell, M.D., a British physician who had returned
from Calcutta to form the Cholera Commission in London. He obtained
for O’Shaughnessy a commission as an assistant surgeon in the
East India Company —a plum assignment for English aristocrats,
much less a poor Irishman. O’Shaughnessy arrived in Calcutta
Posted to various medical units of the Bengal Army, O’Shaughnessy
moved around a lot, learned the rudiments of several native languages,
made friends with local Ayurvedic and Islamic physicians, and helped
found the Calcutta Medical College, where he became Professor of Chemistry
and Materia Medica.
He was appointed first assistant to the opium agent at Behar and
later chemical examiner for the Raj. In 1836 he married Margaret
and also arranged for his cousin, Richard O’Shaughnessy, to join
him at the college. He wrote A Manual of Chemistry, in English, for
his Indian students —one of the earliest textbooks of biochemistry— and
did experiments on electromagnetism and on the constituents of Indian
medical plants, starting with opium. Almost as an aside, he invented
a new way of extracting acids from charcoal to make gunpowder-a practical
discovery much appreciated by the military.
In 1838 O’Shaughnessy discovered Narcotine (noscapine), a previously
unknown alkaloid in opium, visited an opium den to see for himself
how it was prepared, and wrote an elegant paper on “cases of
real and suspected poisoning” in India in 1839. Then he widened
his research into the Indian materia medica to demonstrate “the
valuable therapeutic properties of some Indian vegetable remedies” ...
(and) “to construct a pharmacopoeia for the poor to whom the
costly remedies of Europe and South America are inaccessible” (O’Shaughnessy
O’Shaughnessy’s work over the next few years produced the first textbooks
of Indian medicinal plants in English, the Bengal Dispensatory (1841-42) and
the Bengal Pharmacopoeia (1844).
All three of O’Shaughnessy’s books during this period were magnificent
early examples of teaching science to students for whom English was a foreign
language. Having textbooks in English overcame the barriers imposed by the 360
different languages spoken in India, making biochemistry and Indian medical lore
available in schools and libraries throughout the subcontinent —indeed,
throughout the Empire. This type of education, imperialist to the core, is one
reason that English is spoken all over the world today.
Introduction of Cannabis, 1839
Although cannabis was mentioned occasionally by early botanists and
explorers describing their travels, little was actually known about
cannabis therapy in Europe and America until O’Shaugh-nessy
read a paper to a group of students and scholars of the Medical and
Physical Society of Calcutta in 1839. The 40-page paper was a model
of modern pharmaceutical research. It included a thorough review
of the history of cannabis medical uses by Ayurvedic and Persian
physicians in India and the Middle East-some of whom (his local sources)
were doubtless in the room.
O’Shaughnessy conducted the first clinical trials of cannabis
preparations, first with safety experiments on mice, dogs, rabbits
and cats, then by giving extracts and tinctures (of his own devising,
based on native recipes) to some of his patients. O’Shaughnessy
presented concise case studies of patients suffering from rheumatism,
hydrophobia, cholera, and tetanus, as well as a 40-day-old baby with
convulsions, who responded well to cannabis therapy, leaping from near
death to “the enjoyment of robust health” in a few days.
O’Shaughnessy appended a paper by his cousin Richard on a case
of tetanus cured by a cannabis preparation. He also warned that a peculiar
form of delirium may be “occasioned by continual Hemp inebriation,” and
cautioned doctors to start with low doses. O’Shaughnessy concludes
that these clinical studies have “led me to the belief that in
Hemp the profession has gained an anti-convulsive remedy of the greatest
value.” (O’Shaughnessy 1839a).
Exhausted from preparing
three large books, and from his double duties as professor and chemical
examiner, O’Shaughnessy took a “sick
leave” furlough back to England in 1841. He brought quantities
of hemp for the Pharmaceutical Society and specimens of Cannabis Indica
and Nux vomica back to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, and shepherded
the reprints of his article in the Provincial Medical Journal. Chemists
vied with each other to make potent tinctures and extracts with O’Shaugh-nessy’s
recipes, struggling to identify and isolate the active principles of
the drug —a goal not achieved until 1964 (Gaoni & Mechoulam
Sir J. Russell Reynolds, M.D., personal physician to Queen Victoria,
recommended it to his patients for menstrual cramps (Reynolds 1890),
and O’Shaughnessy was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society
O’Shaughnessy’s paper in the Provincial Medical Journal
(1843) caused a sensation when it became widely available in England.
He had introduced a wonder drug to treat some of the most awful medical
conditions of the 19th century. Physicians throughout Europe and America
tried cannabis for a huge variety of illnesses. As Dr. Lester Grinspoon
noted in Marihuana Reconsidered (1971:15), “Between 1839 and
1900 more than one hundred articles appeared in scientific journals
describing the medicinal properties of the plant.”
A similar thing happened when Dr. Tod Mikuriya reprinted O’Shaugh-nessy’s
paper as the lead article in Marijuana: Medical Papers 1839-1972 (1973) —it
reinvigorated medical interest in the drug and sparked hundreds more
articles on cannabis therapy into the 21st century.
The Indian Telegraph
O’Shaughnessy had done experiments in electric telegraphy as
early as 1838, without exciting much government interest. Nevertheless,
his carrying of electric signals under Calcutta’s River Hooghly
in insulated iron wires in 1838 was the first successful underwater
telegraphy in the world. O’Shaughnessy doubtless knew of Samuel
F. B. Morse’s successful transmission (“What hath God wrought?”)
in the United States in 1844, but his work was completely independent
When O’Shaughnessy returned to India in 1844, he effectively
changed careers. Officially, he was assayist for the Mint, in charge
of unifying India’s dozens of different currencies with standard
coinage. He also tackled a tricky problem in engineering: how to lay
out telegraph lines in a country frequently ravaged by electrical storms,
a land of treacherous rivers and bays, snake-infested swamps, wild
jungles and arid plains, many languages, religions and cultures, dangerous
assassins (the Thugs) and insurrectionist armies —Sikh, Muslim,
and Hindu— fighting desperately to keep the British from taking
O’Shaughnessy finally found his champion in Lord Dalhousie —James
A.B. Ramsey, tenth Earl and first Marquess of Dalhousie (1812-1860) —who
arrived as governor-general of India in 1848. Dalhousie is remembered
as the man who expanded British control of India to practically its
modern borders through military campaigns in the Punjab, Oudh, Kashmir,
and Burma, and by annexing the lands of rajas who had no male heirs.
He is even more famous, however, as the governor-general who built
the civil infrastructure of modern India —the railroads, telegraph,
public education (in English), cheap postage, irrigation and canals,
suppression of thuggee and suttee (wives burning themselves on their
husband’s funeral pyre), and other programs to unite the country
under the Raj (Arnold 1862/1865).
Dalhousie learned of O’Shaugh-nessy’s idea of stringing
the telegraph across India and instantly espoused it as his own. The
Dictionary of National Biography says, “The introduction of the
electric telegraph was Dalhousie’s idea, and was carried out
entirely upon his recommendation.” He named O’Shaugh-nessy
the first superintendent (later director-general) of telegraphy, and
provided funding in 1850-52 for O’Shaugh-nessy to try an experimental
line between Alipore (south of Calcutta) and Diamond Harbor. This first
line was 27 miles long at a time when the only telegraph line in England
was just 18 miles long (Gorman 1971).
The real challenge for O’Shaugh-nessy was to invent a telegraph
that did not rely on copper wires, which were used in England and America
but were too fragile for use in India. He had learned this in 1838,
when fierce thunderstorms tore up his copper lines. Instead, he substituted
iron rods 3/8 of an inch in diameter, carried underground in cement
and overground mounted on bamboo poles. These were practically immune
from damage by the elements, and “are not injured, although passengers,
bullocks, buffaloes and elephants trample on them.” (O’Shaughnessy
Moreover, the overground lines required no insulation: “The moment the
rain falls we are almost safe, as the lightning which strikes the line escapes
by the wet posts to the ground.” He supervised the laying of seven routes
in Bengal—including re-crossing the turbulent Hooghly with this new system— and
in 1852 triumphantly gave Dalhousie his official Report on the Electric Telegraph
between Calcutta and Kedgeree.
Dalhousie understood it immediately —a drastic decrease in the time it
took for British military outposts to communicate with each other, as well
as the potential for colonial business and trade. He sent O’Shaughnessy
back to England for supplies, and ordered British officers to help him pursue
his dream —the construction of lines to Agra, Bombay, the Punjab, and
While in England, O’Shaughnessy may have gone on the one-day (May 22,
1853) voyage of the HMS William Hutt, which laid a submarine telegraph linking
Ireland with Scotland. With Dalhousie’s support, O’Shaughnessy
won Company approval for the project, trained 60 officers assigned to help
him, wrote an instruction manual for native workers, sailed back to India,
and commenced construction of the telegraph in November, 1853.
Only four months later, Dalhousie wrote: “An event has occurred which
is of infinite public moment, and which almost deserves to be regarded as historical.
In November last we began to lay the electric telegraph. Five days ago I received
a message from Agra —800 miles distant— transmitted in one hour
and 50 minutes! ...In a short time we shall complete the line to Bombay, and
thus in a few months we shall have reduced the period of communication with
England from 35 to 26 days. The results of this in peace or war outrun calculation.” (Baird
In January, 1855 Dalhousie added: “Yesterday the Bengal railway was opened
for 122 miles... Two days before, the electric telegraph was opened to the
public from Calcutta to Bombay, to Madras, and to Attock on the Indus. Fifteen
months ago not a yard of this was laid, or a signaler trained. Now we have
3050 miles opened. The communication between Calcutta and Madras, direct by
land, a month ago, took 12 days— yesterday a communication was made,
round by Bombay, in two hours. Again, I ask, are we such slow coaches out here?” (Baird
Another 1,000 miles were laid in 1855. It was truly an amazing feat. In less
than two years, O’Shaughnessy had strung the first telegraph system in
Asia, using native labor and materials, which cut the speed of communications
around India from weeks to hours. In addition to bamboo posts, O’Shaughnessy
used stone obelisks to carry the heavy rods over rugged terrain, and invented
an insulation system using a cement of rosin and sand wrapped in pitched yarn
for the underwater sections.
Copper wires were used where feasible, and O’Shaughnessy devised simple
sending and receiving apparatus that native signalers —mostly teenagers— could
employ with ease. Unlike his 1838 experiments, which conveyed messages by sending
a shock through the wire into the receiver’s hand, O’Shaughnessy’s
signals activated a pointer that alternated right or left depending on the
direction of the current. He later (1857) invented a cryptographic code for
transmission of secret messages (military or business).
Finally, based on
his years of experience with native signalers, O’Shaugh-nessy
insisted that Morse’s instruments be adopted in India, much to
the distress of Cooke and Wheatstone, who had a monopoly on telegraph
services in England. As Professor Mel Gorman of the University of San
Francisco has pointed out, “It is impossible to imagine the foundation
of a telegraph in mid-19th-century India with the complicated and expensive
instruments of the Cooke-Wheatstone type.” (Gorman 1971:592.)
O’Shaughnessy’s genius lay in designing a system that was
crude, cheap, easy to learn, and appropriate for the immense distances
it had to span throughout the subcontinent.
Neither O’Shaughnessy nor Dalhousie could have done it alone.
O’Shaughnessy had the technical know-how, and Dalhousie the political
clout, to get the project funded by the Crown. Together, they built
4,000 miles of homemade telegraph in less than two years. The introduction
of the telegraph, an advanced Western technology into a colonial environment,
was in some sense the opposite of his introduction of cannabis into
Western medicine. O’Shaugh-nessy was adept at relaying scientific
information in both directions, and therein lies his glory.
Dalhousie, severely ill, was forced to return to England in 1855, and
in the first letter he wrote when he landed at Southampton in 1856,
he notes that one officer he recommended for knighthood had already
been honored by the Queen, and “I am now going to fight for O’Shaughnessy
(Director-General of Telegraphs) and Stevenson (built the first railway).” As
a result, O’Shaugh-nessy was knighted by Queen Victoria in 1856.
While in England being knighted (March 1856 to December 1857), O’Shaughnessy
met Samuel F. B. Morse and many other telegraph experts such as Charles
Tilson Bright, who had led the 1853 expedition to lay the telegraph
between Ireland and Scotland. O’Shaughnessy and Morse “became
good friends in London in 1856 and on the 1857 Atlantic Cable expedition” (Gorman
1971:593). This was the voyage of the HMS Agamemnon and the USS Niagara,
the first attempt to lay telegraph across the Atlantic, which ended
disastrously when the cable broke after only four days at sea.
The telegraph proved its worth to the Crown in 1857 during the Sepoy
Mutiny, when hundreds of native soldiers rebelled against their British
officers (allegedly because beef and pig fat were used to grease their
cartridges) and captured the British posts at Calcutta and Delhi. A
message got through to Army units stationed north and south of Delhi
before the telegraph lines were cut, alerting the Raj to the uprising
and enabling them to send troops quickly to quell the mutiny. Sir John
Lawrence, commander of British forces in the Punjab, later wrote a
poem, “The Telegraph Saved India” (for the British Empire).
O’Shaughnessy returned to India to supervise the rebuilding of
the telegraph lines destroyed by the mutineers and to train his successors.
He departed India for London for the last time in 1860. There he suddenly
divorced his wife, married another (Julia Greenly), changed his name
to Sir William O’Shaughnessy Brooke —perhaps to gain an
inheritance from the Brooke side of his family — and dropped
out of sight. There are many mysteries surrounding the last years of
his life; we know nothing about what he actually did for 29 years before
his death in 1889.
Dr. Mikuriya, following a lead that O’Shaughnessy Brooke was
on the board of the Indo-European Telegraph Company, thinks that he
may have traveled for them as an expert on laying lines in challenging
terrains, particularly underwater. His friend Charles T. Bright was
in charge of the Indo-European Telegraph to connect India to Europe
through Turkey, and O’Shaughnessy’s stay in England in
1857 had been extended pending arrangements for a line to India through
Asiatic Turkey. One can only imagine the conversations between two
geniuses —O’Shaughnessy and Bright— who fast-forwarded
the 19th century into the 20th-century world of almost instant intercontinental
communications, a feat only surpassed by the global Internet of the
His gravestone in Southsea (Portsmouth, England) reads simply: “In
Loving Memory of Sir Wm. O’S. Brooke, died January 8, 1889 in
his 80th year.”
This essay is dedicated to Tod H. Mikuriya, M.D., who turned me on
to the works of W.B. O'Shaughnessy more than 30 years ago, and changed
References and Further Reading
Arnold, Edwin, 1862/1865. The Marquis of Dalhousie’s Administration
of British India, 2 vols., London: Saunders, Otley & Co., (Vol.
1) 1862, (Vol. 2) 1865.
Baird, J.G.A., 1910. Private Letters of the Marquess of Dalhousie,
Edinburgh & London, William Blackwood & Sons, 1910.
Coakley, Davis, 1992. Irish Masters of Medicine. Dublin: Town House,
Gaoni, Y. and Mechoulam, R., 1964. Isolation, Structure, and Partial
Synthesis of an Active Constituent of Hashish, J. Am. Chem. Soc. 86(April
20, 1964), 1646-1647.
Gorman, Mel, 1971. Sir William O’Shaughnessy, Lord Dalhousie,
and the Establishment of the Telegraph System in India, Technology
and Culture, 12 (1971), 581.
Grinspoon, Lester, 1971. Marihuana Reconsidered. Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1971.
Mikuriya, Tod H., 1973. Marijuana: Medical Papers 1839-1972. Oakland:
Medi-Comp Press, 1973.
Moon, John B., 1967. Doctors Afield: Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy-the
Foundations of Fluid Therapy and the Indian Telegraph Service. New
England J. Med., 276(5), Feb. 2, 1967, 283-84.
O’Shaughnessy, R., 1839. Case of Tetanus, Cured by a Preparation
of Hemp (the Cannabis indica.), Transactions of the Medical and Physical
Society of Bengal 8, 1838-40, 462-469.
O’Shaughnessy, W.B. 1831. Proposal of new method of treating
blue epidemic cholera by injection of highly-oxygenized salts into
venous system. Lancet 1, 1831-32, 366-371.
O’Shaughnessy, W.B. 1832. Report on the Chemical Pathology of
the Malignant Cholera, etc. London: S. Highley, 1832.
O’Shaughnessy, W.B., 1838. Memoranda on Indian Materia Medica,
presented to the Royal Society October 6, 1838.
O’Shaughnessy, W.B., 1839a. On the Preparations of the Indian
Hemp, or Gunjah, Transactions of the Medical and Physical Society of
Bengal, 8, 1838-40, 421-461. Reprinted in Mikuriya, 1973, 3-30.
O’Shaughnessy, W.B., 1839b. Memoranda relative to experiments
on the communication of telegraphic signals by induced electricity.
Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal, 8, Sept. 1839, 714-731.
O’Shaughnessy, W,B., 1852. Report on the Electric Telegraph between
Calcutta and Kedgeree, Selections from Records of the Bengal Government,
No. VII, Calcutta: F. Carbery, Military Orphan Press, 1852.
Reynolds, J. Russell, 1890. Therapeutic Uses and Toxic Effects of Cannabis
Indica, Lancet 1 (March 22, 1890), 637-638. Reprinted in Mikuriya,
Stephen, Leslie & Lee, Sidney (eds.), 1960, Dictionary of National
Biography, vol. XIV, London: Oxford, 1959-1960, 1204-1205.