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Very royal prescriptions

icon: a box full of medicin

The Austrian States Archives host a great number of important political as well as historical documentations for the Austrian Nation. Some of these documents even go back to the Middle Ages, back to a time where the Habsburg power was just about to grow.

The Habsburg’s favorite drugs

Speaking of Habsburg, what if I told you, that in the exact same Archives you can find all sort of private information about the royal life between the 14th and 20th Century? The Archives host literally anything, from Maria Theresia’s grocery lists to Sisi’s cocaine order.

Wait a second … did I just type Sisi’s cocaine order? Oh yes, I did.

The historical approach

In order for us to understand the royal approach to drugs, we first need to let go of our modern vision of the topic. Drugs consumption has in fact a very ancient history and some substances we would nowadays define as a »drug« have been used as medications for most of human history. Just to mention a couple of examples, Sumerians used Opium already 7000 years ago (I know, right!), around 2500 B.C. lake dwellers would eat poppy seeds in Switzerland and the first mention of alcohol brewing dates back to around 3500 B.C. in Egypt.

If we fast-forward to the 17th century, we will notice that the consumption of tobacco was banned from Russia, Bavaria, Saxony and Switzerland (et al.). In the 19th Century, Napoleon’s army brought Egyptian Cannabis back to France, the First and Second Opium war broke out and cocaine was isolated in its pure form. By 1883, cocaine was being used to treat depression and to increase the ability of soldiers, while heroin was declared to have more advantages than morphine.

icon: a needle and pills

With all this in mind, it is not too surprising to read of some good ole’ heroin in the medical cabinets of the Habsburg. It is fundamental for us to understand though, that drugs consumption back then was not seen as an escape from reality, but as an actual method to cure illnesses.

In the second half of the 19th century, the most frequent diseases in Vienna were tuberculosis, syphilis and gonorrhea, and these were not only caught by common people, but by the high society at court as well. As 2/3 of the mentioned conditions are STDs, I do not think it is my duty to explain to you how the infections kept on raising. While everyone could get sick, not everybody was able to afford a cure. People who could afford a medical treatment though, could not afford to lose their honor. And that’s where the medical cabinet lists of the Austrian States Archives come into play.

The Habsburg approach

You see, one does not simply tell her royal highness Crown Princess Stephanie (1864–1945) that she has gonorrhea, without implying that either she or her husband may have caught the disease from a third party. Having affairs was definitely something normal back then, but basic hygiene and a tad of decency was still expected from their royal highnesses. Princess Stephanie was diagnosed with a case of peritonitis, even though she eventually found out what the issue really was.

icon: a box full of drugs

Her husband, Crown Prince Rudolf (1858-1889; son of Empress Elisabeth and Emperor Francis Joseph) suffered depression since a very young age and gave his best to forget about his mental health by sipping cocktails of Cognac and Champagne. Sadly, this was not a good idea and while the Crown Prince’s health got worse, his doctors prescribed him a good dose of morphine. After contracting gonorrhea (and infecting his wife Stephanie!), Rudolf tried to ease his pain with cocaine injections. These injections were not only against physical pain though. Rudolf’s mother, the famous Empress Sisi herself, received cocaine injections by her doctor, in order for her to stay active and cheer up.

Sisi’s husband, Emperor Francis Josef, was allegedly the only person in the household without an addiction, which was one of the reasons why he survived pretty much his entire family. I’m afraid I can’t say the same about his nephew Otto, who was told by his doctors that he was suffering of laryngitis, while he had a pretty horrible case of syphilis. Otto’s illness was treated with nothing less than a mercury cure, which unfortunately didn’t work.

icon: emperor francis josef

Thank God for science!

As you can see, the Habsburg’s approach to drugs consumption was not as conservative as one could think. Quite the opposite, I think it is inspiring to observe how blindly the imperial family trusted their doctors. Now, the doctors may or may not have always chosen the best treatments, but it is reassuring to know that the Habsburg had at least some faith in science. Whether we should take example from this fate, well that’s the reader’s choice.

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