Sir William O’Shaughnessy: The Grandfather of Medical Cannabis

The research of William O' Shaughnessy helped lay the foundation for medical cannabis research. Read on to see how.

By Heather Ritchie, Staff Writer for Terpenes and Testing Magazine

Most medical cannabis patients may not be familiar with Dr. William Brooke O’Shaughnessy who introduced the herb to contemporary Western Medicine. Not only was he a pioneer of cannabis therapy, but he also “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.” He was more productive in his lifetime than some inventors combined. Let’s see how O’Shaughnessy effectively changed the world.

Born a poor Irish kid in Limerick during 1809, (Some information suggests that he may actually have been born in late 1808.) he showed such remarkable intelligence that he was admitted into the University of Edinburgh in 1827. As part of the lower class and hardly 18 years of age, his admittance into the best medical school in the world was unusual.

He studied chemistry, medicine, anatomy, and forensic toxicology. After teaching for awhile when he graduated, he started a forensic toxicology lab in London, doing chemical analysis on things like urine and blood for courts, hospitals, and doctors.

In 1831, a cholera outbreak led him to analyze the blood of those affected by the illness. Though it wouldn’t be identified as vibrio cholerae until 1883, he identified the treatment as intravenous fluid intervention that helped alleviate dehydration. The doctors who tested this theory saved the lives of almost half of their patients which was some feat back then!

Cannabis in India

O’Shaughnessy spent two different periods of his life in India. One was from 1833-1841 and the other 1852-1860. During his first trip, he tested the medicinal properties of indigenous plants like cannabis and opium.

Understanding that cannabis and other plants were used recreationally and medicinally in the area for thousands of years, he focused on the therapeutic effects of cannabis. Western medicine had no literature on these properties. He noted how the indigenous people prepared edibles and drinks with cannabis.

Wanting to test the locals’ claims about cannabis, he started a broad range of experiments on animals and moved to human research after he saw that cannabis was safe. He studied the effect cannabis had on diseases like hydrophobia, rabies, infant convulsions, cholera, tetanus, and rheumatism and eventually presented his research to the Medical and Physical Society of Calcutta in 1839.

The results showed that cannabis weren’t necessarily a “cure all” for ailments, but rather a beneficial treatment because of its calming and pain-relieving effects. He noticed it also quelled muscle spasms from rabies and tetanus.

Today we know that medical cannabis patients use the herb to ease spasms associated with conditions like dystonia, motor neuron disease, and multiple sclerosis. It's also become an accepted medicinal treatment in conditions like epilepsy. O’ Shaughnessy also studied cannabis use as an anesthetic and severe pain relief.

Introducing England to Cannabis

After publishing several books, he took a leave of absence to return home to England in 1841 and brought back hemp for the Pharmaceutical Society and “Nux vomica” and “Cannabis indica” for the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew. Chemists made potent extracts and tinctures with O’ Shaughnessy’s recipes. Queen Victoria’s personal physician advocated for its use in patients to ease menstrual cramps on the advice of O’Shaughnessy, and as a result, in 1848 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society.

In 1842 he published The Bengal Dispensatory and in 1844, The Bengal Pharmacopeia about some of India’s plants. The section on cannabis was 25 pages and was described by James Mills in the Cannabis Britannica as, “the most comprehensive assessment of the properties of cannabis.”

The Creator of the First Telegraph Circuit

Aside from cannabis, O’Shaughnessy was also well-known for his work on the telegraph. He experimented with creating the first telegraph circuit at the Botanical Gardens in Shibpur. He laid cables with the two ends starting and ending with his position. Then he used a pair of inexpensive, modified watches to successfully transmit messages. In 1838, he proceeded on to experiment in sending electrical signals under Calcutta’s River Hooghly through insulated iron wires. It was the first successful underwater telegraphy ever.

Over the ensuing years, he made history with the scientific advancements of the telegraph after his return to India in 1844. One of his most significant challenges was finding an alternative to the copper wires used in America and England as they were too fragile for India’s environment.

With the political clout of Lord James A. B. Ramsey (Dalhousie), O’Shaughnessy he found a way to simplify the signal transmission process, and in 1857 he invented a cryptographic code for transmitting secret messages. While being knighted in England by Queen Victoria, he met Samuel Morse and other telegraph experts which probably paved the way for the cryptographic code invention.

After mutineers destroyed telegraph lines in India, he went back to train his replacements and supervise the rebuilding project. He left India to return to London for the last time in 1860.

Mystery-What Happened to William O’Shaughnessy

Once back in London, he divorced his wife suddenly and married Julia Greenly. He changed his name to Sir William O’Shaughnessy Brooke, possibly to gain favor for an inheritance from his family on the Brooke side.

Next, he disappeared. No one knows what he did in the years before he died in 1889. A doctor that thought William was a member of the Indo-European Telegraph Company believed that he might have traveled with them as a line-laying expert in difficult terrains, specifically underwater.

No matter how he lived out his last years, his reputation as scholar and inventor long outlived him. O’Shaughnessy’s scientific capability as a scientist is the reason that he had such a profound impact on cannabis research. Many think he is, indeed, the grandfather of medical cannabis research.

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