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An Anatomy of Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted, and the Miracle Drug Cocaine

picture of book cover

While there are plenty of nonfiction books that explore the history of drug addiction, and many specifically on cocaine, Markel explores the addictive drug through the lives of two of its most famous victims: Sigmund Freud and William Halsted.

For those not familiar with the latter, he was a Baltimore 19th century version of House: a brilliant physician who was a part of Johns Hopkins becoming world famous in surgery, but troubled and in pain. Freud and Halsted both become cocaine users with the best of intentions: the former wanted to see what it could do for his patients in therapy; the latter wanted to explore its uses as an anesthesia. Once the men and the doctors around them began to experience cocaine themselves, and feel a "sense of utter satisfaction so strong and compelling, exhilarating and calming that he would eventually risk of sacrifice anything just to be under its power again." Markel argues that Freud was eventually able to realize how destructive cocaine was and testified to giving it up in 1896, while Halsted moved to morphine.

Markel is not the writer that Siddhartha Mukherjee is, but as a physician and author he can articulate what it means to be a drug addict. On the nights when Halsted would miscalculate how much morphine to take and "sailed off to narcotized oblivion," he would verbalize "the most curmudgeonly of thoughts and act on his anger-filled impulses. And with each biting barb, he inexorably harmed personal relationships with those who cared for him."
An Anatomy of Addiction: Sigmund Freud, William Halsted, and the Miracle Drug Cocaine took me a long time to read because it demands a level of concentration as Markel moves between Freud and Halsted's lives, as well as the ancillary characters who played a part. It's a book that will appeal to historians and those in the health care profession, but is best suited for those who are going in with a specific interest in the men or the drug. It's not a book that I feel everyone should read, like The Panic Virus, but should be picked up for anyone seeking to understand how even brilliant men can become hooked on drugs.