Godfather of the Hashischins

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After four years of traveling, Dr. Jacques-Joseph Moreau arrived back home to Paris in 1840 believing he may have found the key to his research. Stashed deep in his baggage he carried a new tool for exploring the mind — hashish!

 Portrait of Moreau in 1845, by N.E. Maurin

While attending medical school, Moreau studied under Dr. Jean-Étienne Dominique Esquirol, a French psychiatrist considered to be the father of organized French psychiatry, and shared his fascination with the mind with him. Dr. Esquirol offered Moreau work escorting Esquirol’s wealthy patients on prescribed therapeutic trips through the Middle East and Italy. Fresh out of school, Moreau jumped at the opportunity to study in the field.

During these travels, Moreau read a paper by Louis Rémy Aubert-Roche claiming the therapeutic effects of hashish on ailments such as typhoid fever and the plague.*1 Intrigued by the reports, he tried hashish while in Syria. Placing some of the edible mixture into his hand, he swallowed the new substance and was surprised by the results. In “Hashish and Mental Illness*2, Moreau is overwhelmed by the experience, writing “I cannot describe the thousand fantastic ideas that passed through my brain during the three hours that I was under the influence of the hashish.”

Realizing hashish’s potential, he later wrote, “I saw in hashish, or rather in its effect upon the mental faculties, a significant means of exploring the genesis of mental illness. I was convinced that it could solve the enigma of mental illness and lead to the hidden source of the mysterious disorder that we call ‘madness’.”

To explore this madness, he came up with a new way of understand the complex illness, or, as he writes it, “to comprehend the ravings of a madman, it is necessary to have raved oneself, but without having lost awareness of one’s madness, without having lost the power to evaluate the psychic changes occurring in the mind.” Needing to “rave” himself, Moreau believed hashish could create this temporary madness while staying sane, theorizing that “hashish gives to whoever submits to its influence the power to study in himself the mental disorders that characterize insanity.”

 

Sketch of Jacques-Joseph Moreau de Tours playing the piano in Turkish dress. Drawn by Theophile Gautier under the influence of hashish in 1845.

Intrigued by his initial findings, he continued to experiment with hashish without any assistance, but soon realized with a drug that could distort impressions, he would need help expressing its effects and possibilities.

In 1840, Moreau returned home to work and continue his studies at the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris, where he also brought his hashish. He began to work with several drugs, researching the effects on the central nervous system. He first studied another ancient drug, Datura stramonium, or jimsonweed, believing the drugs effects also mirrored that of insanity. In 1841, Moreau published his findings on Datura in the Gazette Medicale de Paris titled “In Memory Of Treatment For Hallucinations Datura Stramonium,” becoming one of the first psychiatrists to use herbal pharmacology to treat mental illness.

But hashish stayed on his mind. He documents that “after my trip to the East, the effects of hashish have been a serious and persevering object of study for me. As far as I have been able, and with all the means at my disposal, I have tried to spread this knowledge among the medical public”.*3

Following his work with datura, Moreau expanded his studies to include hashish and recruited participants who could describe the thoughts and feelings during the trials. This newly formed group of the artistic elite would become known as the Club De Hashischins.

Moreau was nicknamed “Dr. X” for supplying the Hashischins with his hashish mixture called dawamesk, a sweet edible mixture called made from hashish, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, pistachio, sugar, orange juice, butter, and cantharides, or Spanish fly.

In 1845, Dr. Moreau published his book “Hashish and Mental Illness.” In his studies, Moreau believed hashish to be an effective tool in treating a variety ailments associated with mental illness, including depression. He wrote, “One of the effects of hashish that struck me most forcefully and which generally gets the most attention is that manic excitement always accompanied by a feeling of gaiety and joy inconceivable to those who have never experienced it. I saw in it a mean of effectively combating the fixed ideas of depressives, disrupting the chain of their ideas, of unfocusing their attention on such and such a subject.”*2

Photograph of Jacques-Joseph Moreau

Moreau would continue to use and study hashish on himself and his patients his entire life. He even grew cannabis himself from seeds he obtained from Italy.*3
He remained devoted to his belief that hashish had the potential to help mental illnesses and continually encouraged people to try it, as he wrote in “Hashish and Mental Illness,” “To those who, after having read my words, still have considerable doubt, I can only repeat: I understand your doubts because, in the case of psychological matters, I know it is impossible to understand what you have not experienced. With illusions and hallucinations … I can say one thing, and you will be convinced if you follow it. Do what I did: take hashish, experiment on yourself, and see for yourself.”*2

‘Hysterics of the Charite on the Service of Dr. Luys’ image by Jacques-Joseph Moreau de Tours 1887

Historical citation

*1 – Rémy Aubert Roche, “De la peste, ou Typhus d’Orient,” Paris, 1840.

*2 – “Hashish and Mental Illness” by Jacques-Joseph Moreau, 1845.

*3 – “Traitement des hallucinations par le datura stramonium” by Jacques-Joseph Moreau in the Gazette Medicale de Paris, October 1841.

*4 – Edmond Decourtive’s thesis on hashish, 1848.

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