Hypodermics at the fin-de-siècle

Adam Stock


The hypodermic syringe has had a profound impact upon the administration of medicine and upon non-medicinal/recreational drug use since it was first marketed in the 1850s. Here, I investigate early depictions of the hypodermic injection of cocaine and morphine in British popular culture. From 1890 until the end of World War I, the syringe – then a re-usable piece of technology made from glass, rubber and steel – developed a particular set of resonances that cut across class, gender and racial lines coded by the drugs it carried. I want to begin to theorise the role of the hypodermic syringe in the context of the history of drug use by responding both to historical circumstances and to relevant psychoanalytic insight.


Syringe Kit

The province of the upper classes: pre-WWI hypodermic injections of cocaine and morphine were often depicted within a medicalised setting

[Image by Joe Flintham under a CC BY-SA license]


At least three people have claims to the invention of the hypodermic syringe in the mid-19th century, including Alexander Wood, who with suitable historical irony became the world’s first intravenous morphine addict and whose wife was the first person to die from an injected overdose. While Marek Kohn found that doctors “took to the device with enthusiasm” (1987, 64), self-injection was still fairly unusual at the end of the nineteenth century.[1] Indeed, the habitual use of injected drugs was limited to the middle and upper classes, and “medical wisdom held that the morphine addict was typically female” (Kohn 1987: 64). Less refined opiates were readily available at this time for those of lesser means. There existed a split between oral consumption of opiates for medical reasons and for pleasure (most famously by those decadent members of the middle class Thomas De Quincey and Samuel Taylor Coleridge), and the “foreign” – specifically “Oriental” practice of smoking opium. Hence, when the eponymous anti-hero of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) wants to smoke opium, he goes down to the East End Docks among sailors and Malays, who are “crouching by a little charcoal stove, playing with bone counters and showing their white teeth as they chattered” (Wilde 148). But Dorian leaves without smoking when he finds another decadent member of the upper class is already in the smoking room. This sort of risky activity is supposed to be a private and concealed vice.

It is instructive to contrast this low den of iniquity with the medicalised use of injected morphine in Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula. The novel’s plot can be read as charting the battle over possession and control of the bodies of Lucy Westenra and Mina Harker between Dracula on the one hand and Van Helsing’s “little band of men” (Stoker 449) on the other. To Van Helsing, female sexuality and the independence of the “New Woman” (110) are as threatening as Dracula himself. This forms the context in which the hypodermic syringe is an important part of what Van Helsing calls the “ghastly paraphernalia of our beneficial trade” (146).

Van Helsing is a patriarch whose mission to defeat Dracula is also a mission to teach four young men the “correct” way to control and arouse women. In Stoker’s misogynistic schema, women need to be controlled: early on, when Lucy has to choose between three suitors, she writes to Mina, “Why can’t they let a girl marry three men, or as many as want her, and save all this trouble? But this is heresy, and I must not say it” (76). After Dracula inverts the act of insemination by penetration at the neck to suck blood, Van Helsing mediates the penetration of both Lucy and Mina by the members of his “little band of men” via his needle, allowing them – to put it crudely – to put colour in their cheeks through the new (and little understood) medical operation of blood transfusion. The giving of blood is described as pleasurable: for the male donor, as Dr Seward puts it, “No man knows till he experiences it, what it is to feel his own life-blood drawn away into the veins of the woman he loves” (156).


Minnesota State University Dracula

The “ghastly paraphernalia of our beneficial trade”: Injecting female patients in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897) depicts the medicalised injection of morphine as a form of patriarchal power

[Image by Jordan Green under a CC BY-NC license]


On the first occasion, it is the young aristocrat Arthur who is called upon to give his blood. Before the operation can start, Van Helsing first gives Lucy Westenra an opiate orally – telling her “Now, little miss, here is your medicine. Drink it off, like a good child.” Once she falls asleep, he allows Arthur to kiss her while he prepares his kit, commenting to Dr Seward, “He is so young and strong and of blood so pure that we need not defibrinate it” (149). As Kohn pithily notes of Sax Rohmer’s Fu-Manchu stories, “a drug story is usually a sex story” (Kohn 1987: 79), and here the blood story is a code for both sex and drugs. For Van Helsing’s transfusion procedure to be a success the female recipient must be drugged to a level of such passivity she is unconscious. As the battle between Dracula and Van Helsing wears on, the shift to the use of the hypodermic syringe in order to drug the transfusion recipient signals the increasingly serious situation: Van Helsing comments, “I fear that with growing strength she may wake; and that would make danger, oh, so much danger. But I shall precaution take. I shall give hypodermic injection of morphia” (156). The hypodermic injection here represents modern medical technology, but it is the phallus that gives Van Helsing his power over passive females too.

If morphine and the hypodermic syringe provide a locus for the expression of patriarchal anxieties in Dracula, they play a similar role in Freud’s analysis of his own dream of July 23-24, 1895 in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). In the dream, Freud’s young, attractive patient Irma, links together a network of personal anxieties about his own professional life, his frequent use of cocaine and his personal relationships with women including his wife and his daughter Mathilde, as well as Irma’s recently deceased friend (also named Mathilde).

Freud’s ambivalent attitude toward the syringe reflects his own mixed experiences of administering injections. He had advised a friend (here unnamed, but widely known to be physiologist Ernst Fleischl von Marxow [1846-91]) to use cocaine in an oral solution to facilitate withdrawal from morphine.[2] Apparently against Freud’s advice, Marxow had injected the drug, and this “hastened” his death (Freud 89). Freud inadvertently reveals the neurotic power of syringes in his dream when he calls three male friends to examine Irma:

Not long before, when [Irma] felt unwell, my friend Otto had given her an injection of a propyl preparation, propylene… propionic acid… trimethylamine (I see its formula before me in bold type)… Such injections are not to be given so lightly… Probably the syringe was not clean, either. (85)

Freud glosses his worry about the cleanliness of the syringe as relating to another case: he had been giving an 82-year old patient morphine injections twice a day for two years. He speaks of his “pride that over a period of two years I have not introduced a single infiltration; I take constant care, to be sure, to see that the syringe is clean” (94). While visiting the countryside, Freud’s patient had developed phlebitis (the inflammation of a vein) and this, he tells us, was behind his worry over clean syringes.

We may well question this assertion. At various points Freud conflates Irma with her equally attractive friend, his own wife and his daughter. To Freud, “three similar situations surface in my memory – involving my wife, Irma and the dead Mathilde – the identity of these situations has clearly given me the right to substitute these three people for one another in my dream” (94). It is tempting, however, to suggest a more uncomfortable reading: perhaps the quickly-glossed dirty needle provides a hint of darker sexual desires. The syringe, I suggest serves as an intersecting point for the thwarting of his desires and his guilt about these desires? Far from merely being a means of accusing his friend Otto, the syringe allows Freud to cast out and thrust aside these unwanted feelings.



What lurks beneath: does the syringe in Freud's dream function to sublimate his own sexual feelings?

[Images (from left to right) by wordscraft under a CC BY-NC-ND license and Enrico under a CC BY license]


Indeed, Freud’s own needle troubles are a suggestive point from which to begin to theorise the place of the hypodermic syringe in wider culture. As a container the syringe always carries something more than itself. It is a means of exchanging information: putting a vaccine into the body as part of a public health programme, say, or extracting blood to perform diagnostic tests. But if this is the medic’s experience of wielding the syringe, then – to borrow from Marshall McLuhan – to the patient the medium of the syringe is the message. The syringe is its own referent. Notwithstanding media-stoked fears about the MMR vaccine, we do not flinch from the vaccine but rather from the needle.

Freud’s neurosis over the cleanliness of the syringe points to the syringe – or more precisely the use of the syringe – as being an example of Julia Kristeva’s concept of the abject, of that which is neither subject nor object, neither “I” nor other, “but rather the threat of indistinction between the two” (Becker-Leckrone 33). As such, it has a power of horror. The abject is not only a monstrous intrusion into the experience of life, but one that shows me death. Kristeva lists examples of the abject including the human corpse, or:

A wound with blood and pus, or the sickly, acrid smell of sweat, of decay, [which do] not signify death. In the presence of signified death – a flat encephalograph, for instance – I would understand, react, or accept. No, as in true theatre, without makeup or masks, refuse and corpses show me what I permanently thrust aside in order to live. These body fluids, this defilement, this shit are what life withstands, hardly and with difficulty, on the part of death (Kristeva 3).

The hypodermic syringe is literally transgressive. Its use crosses the boundary between self and other, between inside and outside, and in so doing it is simultaneously both fascinating and repulsive. Hence, “the phobic has no other object than the abject” (Kristeva 6) and “the abject is perverse” (15).

This tension between horror and fascination can be clearly seen in Dr Watson’s reaction to Sherlock Holmes’s use of a hypodermic syringe in The Sign of Four (1890). If in Dracula the injection of the female patient asserts patriarchal control over her, then self-injection by a male character is decadent and effeminate. Well before the recreational use of cocaine was widespread, Sherlock Holmes introduced many readers to hypodermic syringes as the means for delivering both morphine and cocaine. Conan Doyle’s novel opens with the narrator, Watson, giving the following description:

Sherlock Holmes took his bottle from the corner of the mantelpiece, and his hypodermic syringe from its neat morocco case. With his long, white, nervous fingers he adjusted the delicate needle and rolled back his left shirtcuff. For some little time his eyes rested thoughtfully upon the sinewy forearm and wrist, all dotted and scarred with innumerable puncture-marks. Finally, he thrust the sharp point home, pressed down the tiny piston, and sank back into the velvet-lined armchair with a long sigh of satisfaction. (Conan Doyle 89)

The hypodermic syringe is here an expensive item, presented in a handsome case, and Holmes’ use of the drug conforms to the rituals of a regular habit. The detective is not an imposing manly figure but “sinewy”, “nervous” and excitable, with feminine “long, white” hands. He conforms to Kristeva’s suggestion that “so many victims of the abject are its fascinated victims – if not its submissive and willing ones” (Kristeva 9). Watson’s sexualised language of thrusting, pistons and sinking hints at unspoken aspects of his relationship with Holmes, but Watson is also disturbed by it: “my conscience” he declares, “swelled nightly within me at the thought that I had lacked the courage to protest” (Conan Doyle 89). While Holmes fetishizes the syringe, Watson is repelled by the thought that through intravenous drug use he may cause the loss of the very powers that attract him to the detective. The syringe itself is a signifier of a network of late-Victorian cultural anxieties, and here it immediately marks out Conan Doyle’s hero as extraordinary and eccentric.


Sherlock Holmes Alternative Cover

The rituals of a regular habit: Sherlock Holmes' injection of cocaine and morphine in The Sign of the Four  (1890) is depicted as decadent and effeminate

[Image by Scott Monty under a CC BY-NC license]


It is worth noting that Holmes is doing nothing illegal. At the turn of the century Britain had the world market in opiod production cornered, and when in 1912 America tried to get an international ban on narcotics Britain dragged its heels. It was not until 28 July 1916 that possession of opium or cocaine without prescription (but still not morphine or heroin) became illegal under regulation 40B of the Defence of the Realm Act following a spate of scandals involving soldiers – particularly Canadians – on leave in Britain, along with prostitutes and/or actresses and dancers in London’s West End. In many of these newspaper stories, cocaine was linked to the small handful of opium dens run by East Asian immigrants in the East End and there were heavy overtones of racism and xenophobia. These were fully exploited by Sax Rohmer in his Fu Manchu series of novels and stories, beginning in 1912-1913 with serialised novel The Mystery of Fu-Manchu (published as The Insidious Fu-Manchu in the US), in which the villain’s first choice of weapon is a needle tipped with poison. Sinisterly, he also administers poisons orally for which only he has the antidote – again given by injection. His only vice, meanwhile, is opium smoking.

Attitudes in the UK changed with dramatic swiftness: as late as 1916, Harrods was selling gift boxes to send to “friends at the front”, which contained gelatine sheets impregnated with cocaine and morphine. Within months, cocaine became the focus of Britain’s first drug scare. Then, on the morning after the Victory Ball in Albert Hall, 1918, the young music hall actress Billie Carleton (who had attended wearing a daring costume in the company of notorious cross-dressing designer Reginauld De Veulle) was found dead in her room at the Savoy next to a box of cocaine. De Veulle was convicted as her supplier, and a link established between him and an East End opium den. The episode cemented many of the features of subsequent scares: so-called “new women”; the entertainment industries; homosexuality; the East End and foreigners. It also provided a source for Noel Coward’s 1924 play The Vortex, where shady worlds of theatre and dancing, cocaine, homosexuality and promiscuity collide.

There is a dialectic between the historical mediation of the syringe through these medical and cultural forms, and my understanding of the syringe as abject. The syringe was not always-already abject, but formed as such through the way it was used by the medical profession, the patients it was used upon, and in particular the substances it frequently contained. Marek Kohn (1992) quotes Lady Diana Manners, a leading socialite, who in 1915 told Raymond Asquith (the son of the Prime Minister no less) that she and his wife Katherine had lain, “in ecstatic stillness through too short a night, drugged in very deed by my hand in morphia. O, the grave difficulty of the actual injection, the sterilizing in the dark and silence and the conflict of my hand and wish when it came to piercing our flesh” (quoted in Kohn 1992: 32-3). At the personal, psychological level, “the conflict of my hand and wish” is a feeling of abjection – the thing that is neither I nor other. It is a border that literally encroaches upon me: the needle disappears beneath my skin and the boundaries of “I” and “not I” are temporarily crossed. The world is no longer “out there”, something I conceive of as beyond myself, but intimately inside me. But in contrast to the emotional reactions that intravenous drug use occasions today in a world still ravaged by both AIDS and the War On Drugs, in 1915 this behaviour was little more than frowned upon in “polite society”. As Lady Manners’s biographer Philip Ziegler put it, “to reduce oneself to a stupor with morphia was risky, perhaps immoral, but to drink a whisky and soda would have been common – a far worse offence” (quoted in Kohn 1992: 33). Ghastly as the use of morphine was, within the network of cultural anxieties loaded on to the hypodermic syringe it retained an air of medical, genteel respectability lacking from the public house.


CITATION: Adam Stock, "Hypodermics at the fin-de-siècle,Alluvium, Vol. 2, No. 5 (2013): n. pag. Web. 9 October 2013, http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v2.5.04.


[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]https://www.alluvium-journal.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Screen-Shot-2012-06-05-at-19.19.41.png[/author_image] [author_info]Dr Adam Stock is Research Associate in the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics at Newcastle University. His research interests include utopian/dystopian fiction and thought, science fiction, modernism and visual and material culture. He is part of the performance-publication duo the Department of Things to Come, a founder of the Utopography critical/creative research group, and an Early Career Researcher advocate for the Open Library of Humanities. [/author_info] [/author]


Works Cited:

Becker-Leckrone, Megen. Julia Kristeva and Literary Theory (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).

Conan Doyle, Arthur. “The Sign of Four” in The Penguin Complete Sherlock Holmes (London: Penguin, 1981), pp.89-158.

Freud, Sigmund. The Interpretation of Dreams. Trans. Joyce Crick. (Oxford: Oxford World’s Classics, 1999).

Kohn, Marek. (1987) Narcomania: On Heroin. (London: Faber & Faber, 1987).

—–. (1992) Dope Girls: The Birth of the British Drug Underground. London: Granta.

Kristeva, Julia. Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia UP, 1982).

Rohmer, Sax. The Insidious Fu-Manchu (Lincoln, NE: New Millennium Library, 2001).

Stoker, Bram. Dracula (London: Penguin, 1994).

Wilde, Oscar. The Picture of Dorian Gray (London: Wordsworth, 1992).



[1] Early medical uses of the syringe include antitoxin treatments for diphtheria and quinine to treat malaria. The syringe was also promoted to use for injecting morphine and cocaine – and from 1898 onwards, heroin too (on which, See Marek Kohn, Narcomania: On Heroin (London, Faber & Faber: 1987) p. 3).


[2] See 422 n. 88; and Ritchie Robertson “introduction” in Freud, 1999: xxiv.



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