The Cult of O’Shaughnessy

Editor’s Note: Points welcomes guest poster, Bradley J Borougerdi. Borougerdi holds BA, MA, and PhD degrees from the University of Texas at Arlington. His dissertation, “Cord of Empire, Exotic Intoxicant: Hemp and Culture in the Atlantic World, 1600-1900,” presents hemp as a vehicle for intercultural exchange in the modern era.

William Brooke O’Shaughnessy’s legacy looms large in the hemp liberation movement that is gaining momentum in America today. O’Shaughnessy was an Irishman of relatively humble origins who enjoyed some success as an employee of the British East India Company (EIC). He was remembered in the 19th century for successfully engineering the first telegraph system in Colonial India, an accomplishment that earned him a knighthood in 1857. Neither his obituary nor the brief biographies of him mention his career as a chemist, yet today’s hemp activists elevate him to near godlike status for his medical experiments with Indian hemp. He encountered the plant being used all across India, he said, “in various forms by the dissipated and the deprived, as the ready agent of a pleasing intoxication.” He concocted a preparation of the plant’s resin that became popular in the Atlantic world during the second half of the 19th century, but, for a number of reasons, it fell out of favor by the early 20th century. Today’s hemp activists– without acknowledging the complex nature of hemp’s place as a medicine in Anglo-Atlantic culture– describe O’Shaughnessy as an objectively brilliant, ahead-of-the-times genius. Some also see his work as living proof of a conspiracy against hemp for various economic and political reasons. Not only do these arguments demonstrate how readily history can be exploited for contemporary purposes, but the memorialization of O’Shaughnessy illuminates the complicated discourse that has surrounded the hemp plant over the last two centuries.

William Brooke O’Shaughnessy (via Wikipedia)
William Brooke O’Shaughnessy (via Wikipedia)

O’Shaughnessy has a cultish following today because he was the first western medical practitioner to publish articles promoting the use of a medicine he derived from the hemp plant. He called it a “wonder drug,” and claimed that it was effective against all sorts of ailments, including tetanus, infantile convulsion, rheumatism, and rabies. He supported these claims with detailed experiments conducted on animals, patients, and even some of the medical students he worked with at the Medical School of Calcutta. The Medical School was a college established by the EIC with the professed agenda of bringing medical “civilization” to a people who O’Shaughnessy felt had “been so Completely and so unaccountably neglected” in a place “with multitudes of Medicinal plants of the highest promise.”

At the time of O’Shaughnessy’s birth in 1809, the British were just beginning to realize the complexity of the hemp plant. Hemp seed was part of traditional folk medicine in England, but the plant’s primary use was for rigging their ships and weaving their canvasses (and some linens) out of its fiber. However, as Adam Rathge pointed out, most English hemp needed to be imported from Russia; the British simply could not manufacture enough of the durable, water-retted fiber needed for naval stores. This served as a disadvantage for the British on a number of occasions throughout the 18th century, and the Napoleonic Wars that were waging when O’Shaughnessy was born created the largest hemp crisis in British history. Searching for another source of the durable fiber, they turned to India as a manufacturing center.

Images of India’s lush environment enticed EIC employees to conduct experiments with many fiber-producing plants they found growing there. But hemp was the strangest of them all, for the Indians and their supposedly “degenerate” ways somehow managed to transform this durable, industrial plant into a deviant, intoxicating substance. No matter how hard people like Robert Wissett, William Roxburgh, or John Forbes Royle tried to convince the Indians to grow hemp for fiber, they could not get the locals to abandon their use of the plant for bhang, ganja, and charras – the latter two of which were rumored to cause insanity. Before long, the British found themselves working harder to control the spread of the so-called “deleterious” hemp than promoting the “beneficial” hemp products.

This brings us to O’Shaughnessy’s medical experiments with the plant, which took place in the 1830s. By then, the British were extracting more raw material from India’s fiber-yielding plants, and medicine was undergoing profound changes throughout Europe. In fact, it was becoming a more legitimate and profitable profession for the Bourgeoisie. As historian James H. Mills put it, “this was a period when fortunes could be made from medical innovations, as Edward Jenner had demonstrated with his smallpox vaccine.” Medical historian Roy Porter called the period the “Age of Improvements,” and the changes that took place within it helped cultivate the idea among the British that they could transform the “deviant” uses of hemp into something valuable for the empire. This value represented British imperialism at its finest: take something the Indians use, tell them it is one of the many causes of their degeneration, alter it a bit, and then instruct them on how to use it “properly.” The plant’s ability to produce subspecies that look relatively similar but have significant genetic variation allowed the British to contrast the western, “productive” uses for hemp with what they considered to be the degenerate, sinister, eastern ones. Even though their rhetoric failed to get the Indians to grow hemp industrially for the benefit of the empire, the British still claimed it was their moral responsibility to promote the “Civilizing Mission.” This mission meant condemning the “exotic” uses of hemp and finding a way to transform them into productive medicines, such as O’Shaughnessy’s tincture. This is how hemp became a quintessential symbol of British imperialism in India.

Although this discourse about hemp was taking place in a 19th century British imperial context, it had a profound impact on the way Americans perceived the plant because they were connected through transatlantic networks of knowledge exchange. These networks allowed word of O’Shaughnessy’s initial experiments to make their way across the Atlantic and into American medical journals less than two years later. The American sources also included descriptions of hemp’s “deviant” qualities as used by “Asiatics,” creating an aura of mystery behind the plant’s new medicinal uses there as well.

A more profound problem with O’Shaughnessey’s medical hemp had little to do with rhetoric: the concoctions that O’Shaughnessy produced and distributed were largely ineffective. He had no idea what THC was, and the preparations were so volatile in their effectiveness that medical practitioners became skeptical about using them.

The cult-narrative memory of O’Shaughnessey’s life erases both the larger context of colonial medicine and the question about the efficacy of his products. Instead, O’Shaughnessey’s champions offer embellished and conflated stories about the man, calling his appointment to Assistant Surgeon in the EIC, for example, “a plum assignment for an English aristocrat, much less a poor Irishman.” Rather than exaggerating the prestige of such a minor job, the author could have considered the significance of the EIC, the context of British imperialism, or the larger question of how the British promoted the civilizing mission in India– which are all important to the history of hemp’s place in Anglo-Atlantic culture. Instead, the author argues that O’Shaughnessy is a genius and his work is “a model of modern pharmaceutical research.” When I wrote a short piece about how hemp became illegal in American society, one commenter found it “disrespectful and disingenuous to the pivotal work and legacy of Sir William Brooke O’Shaughnessy” that I did not mention his name. His subsequent comments on the Irish doctor’s noble deeds are another example of how O’Shaughnessy’s work is being taking out of context to serve present day purposes.

W. B. O’Shaughnessy, M.D.  Located at The National Library of Medicine, Images from the History of Medicine Collection, Lithograph Print, n.d., Order No. B020160.  This image of the Irish doctor who first experimented with Indian hemp as a medicine in Calcutta does not have a date, but the style of penmanship suggests that it is a twentieth century invention rather than a nineteenth century one.  O’Shaughnessy did indeed become a recognized individual during his duration as an employee of the EIC, but it was due less to his contributions as a chemist than it was to his work on the telegraph system in India.  There certainly were a number of publications over the course of the nineteenth century that cited his work with Indian hemp, but his national biography failed to even mention this part of his life, which took place in the early stages of his career.  Today, there is a sort of cult following around his memory, with often fantastical descriptions of his accomplishments and intellectual capabilities accompanying the descriptions of his work with the hemp plant.  An excellent example of this cult following is the online publication, O’Shaughnessy’s Online, which can be accessed at:
W. B. O’Shaughnessy, M.D. Located at The National Library of Medicine, Images from the History of Medicine Collection, Lithograph Print, n.d., Order No. B020160. This image of the Irish doctor who first experimented with Indian hemp as a medicine in Calcutta does not have a date, but the style of penmanship suggests that it is a twentieth century invention rather than a nineteenth century one. Today, there is a cult following around his memory, with often fantastical descriptions of his accomplishments and intellectual capabilities accompanying the descriptions of his work with the hemp plant. An excellent example of this cult following is the online publication, O’Shaughnessy’s Online, which can be accessed at:

Ironically, these activists may be right about the medicinal value of hemp. More scientific research is unequivocally demonstrating that the exaggerated propaganda that the United States government has been feeding Americans over the past eighty years about this plant is simply not true. We also now know a lot more about the plant’s genetic diversity. The potential economic, social, and environmental advantages that can be gained from using the fiber and the cannabinoids (chemicals located in the plant’s DNA that are both psychoactive and non-psychoactive) are indeed numerous and promising. Hemp is one of the most unique plants known to humanity, and this is one reason there has been so much confusion about it over the course of the past two centuries.

But we only add to that confusion by reconstructing hemp’s history without critically engaging the sources. When we look closely at the primary and secondary source material, we find that the imperial context of hemp’s appropriation into the 19th century Materia Medicas of the Anglo-Atlantic world is important because it helps explain the orientalist connection that contributed to the transformation the plant endured over time. Medical journals, travel narratives, and popular magazines from the mid-to-late 19th century describe the exotic, foreign, and therefore dangerous qualities of the so-called Indian hemp. Racism and a lack of scientific understanding about the plant exacerbated these perceptions. Then, as Isaac Campos’ work elegantly demonstrates, a new menace from the South known as “locoweed” started to pervade American society in larger numbers after World War I. The discovery that this “marihuana” was the same substance as the “eastern, intoxicating” hemp must have caused further hysteria and lead to more legislation against it.

Studying O’Shaughnessy’s work and the thousands of descriptions about the hemp he introduced in the 19th century is indeed an excellent starting point for understanding the plant’s place in America today– but not because of his genius. Let today’s scientific research speak for the hemp plant and leave O’Shaughnessy where he belongs: in a 19th century imperial context.

5 thoughts on “The Cult of O’Shaughnessy

  1. He was ahead of his time from the imperial standpoint too, advocating for instruction in native languages and learning from indigenous practitioners. He wrote first modern biochemistry textbook. As med student at university of Edinburgh, he came up with iv electrolyte therapy for cholera, which likely saved thousands from death by dehydration in pore antibiotic era.

    Also there was great success with 19th century cannabis remedies, as evidenced by Drs. OSLER, GOWER, Brown-Sequard, and other leading physicians

    • One of the names he mentions in his initial publication on indian hemp as a medical doctor cannot be found. Cyrus Alai who wrote Encyclapedia Irannica has never heard of the name O’Shaughnessy mentions as the native “authority” on hemp. He did make a name for himself with the cholera experiments for sure, but there are definately at least as many descriptions of the indian hemp not working properly as a tincture as there are of its successes. Google books has hundreds from the 19th century available online

  2. I don’t know anyone who uses O’Shaughnessy to prove a conspiracy against hemp. I wrote chapter 3 of The Pot Book about how Rockefeller and Mellon were involved in a conflict of interest against hemp – but none of that is very controversial, and has yet to be challenged by anyone in the academic world as being “exploited for contemporary purposes” – let alone dismissed as “conspiratorial”. “” I think many people use the word “conspiracy” to avoid having to discuss “conflicts of interest” because, basically, many people are cowards. “What I wish to point out … is how deep-seated the fear of passing judgment, of naming names, and of fixing blame – especially, alas, upon people in power and high position, dead or alive – must be if such desperate intellectual maneuvers are being called on for help.” – Hannah Arendt, Responsibility and Judgment (2003), p. 21, From “Personal Responsibility Under Dictatorship”, 1964

    • That is a great book, David. And there were definitely a great deal of conflicts of interest that led to hemp falling out of favor. But I think we can lose sight of the imperial context when we venerate O’Shaughnessy, which many conspiracy theorists do, such as Jack Herer. The O’ Shaughnessy article by Aldrich is a case in point as well. The Civilizing Mission of the British Empire to which O’Shaughnessy belonged suggested that Indian uses were degenerate, which is how hemp initially gained a negative perception in the west.

  3. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Bradley J. Borougerdi at the Points blog places the modern reverence of William Brooke O’Shaughnessy into its the proper historical context. O’Shaughnessy was an employee of the British East India Company (EIC). As an employee of the EIC he cultivated different types of hemp in India and developed several medications based on it. While modern scientists are exploring the valid medical properties of hemp and marijuana, most of O’Shaughnessy’s concoctions were “volatile” and “largely ineffective.” Borougerdi argues that people focus less on his experiments with hemp and more on the 19th century imperial context of his actions.

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