Kipling and Medicine

Acohol and drug abuse

(by Gillian Sheehan)

Drug addiction

This is a state of intoxication (poisoning) that may be intermittent or continuous, that is harmful to the individual, or to those he lives with, or both. It is characterised by physical and emotional dependence on the drug. (If they stop taking it they suffer withdrawal symptoms.) It is also characterised by the development of tolerance so they have to keep increasing the dose to produce the required effects. [Linford-Rees, W.L., A Short Textbook of Psychiatry, English Universities Press, 1967, p.224.]

John of Burgos in “The Eye of Allah” (1926), in Debits and Credits, needed a steady hand for painting his manuscript. He was well aware that his work would deteriorate if he took drugs.

Mr Conroy and Miss Henschil are both addicted to ‘Najdolene’ in “In The Same Boat” (1911) in A Diversity of Creatures. The ‘tabloids of the excellent M. Najdol’ guarantee:

‘Refreshing and absolutely natural sleep to the soul-weary.’

Moreover, they are packed in a case containing a spring, which presses one tablet to the end of the tube so, if concealed in a gloved hand, they can be taken unobserved while stroking one’s moustache, or if female, adjusting a veil. Conroy has been taking Najdolene for three years. This has adversely affected his health and his friends think that, as he does not drink, he has strained his heart by ‘valiant outdoor exercises’. To hide his dependency on the drug and its effects on him, he has to invent an imaginary doctor, symptoms and treatment.


Opium smoking didn’t begin until after the discovery of America, where pipe-smoking is thought to have originated. It began to be a problem in China about the middle of the seventeenth century. The habitual use of opium produces physical and mental deterioration and shortens life. During the 1880s, ten million pounds worth of opium per year was exported from India to China. [James, Lawrence, The Rise and Fall of the British Empire, Little Brown, 1994, p.241.]
“In an Opium Factory” (1888), in From Sea To Sea Vol. 2, is a fascinating account of Kipling’s visit to the Ghazipur Factory, where opium was produced. Ghazipur is on the banks of the Ganges, forty miles below Benares. The opium was brought to the factory and processed during April, May and June. It was packed and despatched during the winter. He reported how everything was checked, weighed and signed for. The coolies were searched to ensure they weren’t stealing any. The pots and jars that the opium had been brought to the factory in were scraped out and then broken and thrown on the river bank where nobody was ever allowed to go. The factory produced morphine, narcotine and cocaine. The special opium cakes they made were exported to China.

Today there is still an opium factory at Ghazipur.

In November 1900, Kipling was interviewed at the Authors’ Club in New York by the Professor of Surgery at the New York Polyclinic Medical School, Robert H M Dawbarn.
Kipling thought that opium was a great help to millions of Indian natives. He was convinced that there was a difference between the races in their reaction to its habitual use. He said that an Indian native would take opium in increasing doses only up to a certain point, and then, usually, would not exceed that amount for the rest of his life, similar to the way white men use tobacco. But the white person using opium would go on increasing the dose as long as he could. He thought that the native Indians who regularly took opium were strengthened by it for very heavy work. He also thought that such men didn’t suffer from “the fever of the country”, but, in those who did get fever, opium seemed to be an effective treatment for it. [Orel, Harold, Interviews and Recollections, Vol. 1, Macmillan, 1983, p.108.]

In “The Gate of the Hundred Sorrows” (1884), in Plain Tales from the Hills, Gabral Misquitta, the half-caste, is dying, having smoked opium for five years. He tells the Narrator how the “Black Smoke” as he calls it, affected different peoples:

‘Nothing grows on you so much, if you’re white, as the Black Smoke. A yellow man is made different. Opium doesn’t tell on him scarcely at all; but black and white suffer a good deal. Of course there are some people that the Smoke doesn’t touch any more than tobacco would at first. They just doze a bit as one would fall asleep naturally, and next morning they are almost fit for work.’

In the opium den in this story each person has a mat to lie on with ‘a wadded woollen headpiece all covered with black and red dragons and things’. Initially, after his third pipe ‘the dragons would move about and fight’. but after smoking opium ‘pretty steadily’ for five years it took a dozen pipes ‘to make ’em stir’. Originally Misquitta had a job on ‘a big timber contract’. But ‘the Black Smoke does not allow of much other business’

He has lost interest in everything and is content to give all his money to old Fung-Tching, the owner of the opium den, in exchange for opium to smoke and a clean mat to lie on whenever he wanted.

The signs of opium addiction include intention tremor of the hands and fingers, distortions in visual perception, loss of appetite, nausea and vomiting, weight loss and weakness. There may be impairment of mental function, loss of emotional control, confusion and poor judgement. [Linford-Rees, W.L., A Short Textbook of Psychiatry, English Universities Press , 1967, p. 228.]

Two of the other opium smokers, a Persian and a Madrassi, have both become very shaky and have to get a boy to light their pipes for them. Misquitta has lost all knowledge of time. He can’t remember his wife. People say he has killed her by taking to opium. It doesn’t matter to him anymore. He can remember that when he had first started smoking opium he had felt guilty about it. Now, all that he cares about is that he should continue to get the sixty rupees a month, which is what it costs him. He feels ‘quiet and soothed and contented’. Although he is dying, he thinks, mistakenly, that he is very little affected by it.

In The Naulahka, (1892) the Maharajah is an opium addict and a very heavy drinker:

‘his eyes were red with opium, and he walked as a bear walks when he is overtaken by the dawn in a poppy-field, where he has gorged his fill through the night watches.’

Tarvin, the young American hero of the story, is very concerned about the Maharajah’s son. He thinks he is being poisoned. But, with loss of emotional control and poor judgement, the Maharajah suddenly flares up and becomes furious with Tarvin. He doesn’t want to be bothered about his son although he hasn’t seen him for ‘some days’. Even when Tarvin takes the unheard of step of blaming Sitabhai, the present queen, for poisoning the boy,

‘but for the drugs he would, in the extremity of his rage, have fallen upon Tarvin….’

When Kate, the heroine of the tale, visits the State Dispensary, Lalla Dunphat Rai who is in charge of it, tells her that he allows all the patients to eat opium because ‘otherwise they would die’. One ‘confirmed lunatic’ is quite harmless, ‘except when he does not get his opium’.

Kipling must have modelled the State Dispensary in The Naulahka on the Dispensary in Boondi which he describes in Letters of Marque, Ch XVI in From Sea To Sea, Vol.1, (1899):

‘ “All folk, even little children eat opium here,” said the Doctor, and the diet-book proved it.’

Drugs in Warfare

Kipling’s refers to the use of drugs in warfare in “The Drums of the Fore and Aft”, in Wee Willie Winkie, (1888):

Then the foe began to shout with a great shouting, and a mass – a black mass – detached itself from the main body, and rolled over the ground at horrid speed. It was composed of, perhaps, three hundred men, who would shout and fire and slash if the rush of their fifty comrades who were determined to die carried home. The fifty were Ghazis, half-maddened with drugs and wholly mad with religious fanaticism…


In “To Be Filed For Reference” (1888) in Plain Tales from the Hills, McIntosh Jellaludin had been drinking heavily for seven years and was usually drunk two days each week. He is described as ‘a tall, well-built man, fearfully shaken with drink’and ‘he looked nearer fifty than the thirty-five which, he said, was his age.’ He warns the Narrator that if he is lent any books he will sell them for bottles of ‘excessively filthy country liquors’. Even when he has been ‘abominably drunk’ he doesn’t get a hangover the next day. As Kipling says:

‘When a man has lost the warning of “next morning’s head” he must be in a bad state.’

Delirium tremens

This usually occurs in a chronic alcoholic following a bout of heavy drinking. The symptoms include hallucinations which are usually visual and terrifying, insomnia, agitation and delirium. Convulsions may occur. It is a serious medical emergency requiring expert treatment. It is often complicated by infection and deficiencies of thiamine and nicotinic acids (B vitamins). [Matthew, Henry, A.A.H. Lawson, Treatment of Common Acute Poisonings, 3rd edition, Churchill Livingstone, 1975, pp.130-131.]

Moriarty, the principal character in the story, “In Error” (1887), in Plain Tales from the Hills, has been a secret drinker for almost three years, drinking ‘L.L.L. and Christopher and little nips of liqueurs, and filth of that kind’. [Christopher & Grant’s Cherry Brandy, McGivering, John, New Readers’ Guide.] Kipling gives him a bad prognosis when he says:

‘There is hope for a man who gets publicly and riotously drunk more often than he ought to do, but there is no hope for the man who drinks secretly and alone in his own house – the man who is never seen to drink.’

Moriarty feels guilty about his drinking and sometimes manages to stay off alcohol for a week. But then he will ‘make a big night of it’ and get ‘hopelessly drunk’ and, again unlike Jellaludin, would ‘suffer for it the next morning’. When he falls in love with Mrs Reiver he decides to give up his drinking. This is what happens:

‘The past ten days had been very bad ones, and the end of it all was that he received the arrears of two and three-quarter years of sipping in one attack of delirium tremens of the subdued kind; beginning with suicidal depression, going on to fits and starts and hysteria, and ending with downright raving….

He seemed to know there was something wrong and twice tried to pull himself together and confer rationally with the Doctor; but his mind ran out of control, at once, and he fell back into a whisper and the story of his troubles….’

In the early stages the person may be anxious and irritable and have illusions and hallucinations at night for some weeks. Then there may be a sudden onset of very frightening hallucinations of vision and also of sensation and hearing, accompanied by disorientation.
Moriarty does not appear to have had hallucinations. But he did suffer from restlessness and agitation:

‘He started a good deal at sudden noises or if spoken to without warning; and when you watched him drinking his glass of water at dinner, you could see the hand shake a little.’

Later he develops sleeplessness and delirium and the Doctor is called. Usually in a few days the sufferer falls into a deep sleep, and on awakening, is clear in mind. With the help of the Doctor, Moriarty gets over the DTs and makes a full recovery from ‘a bad attack of jungle-fever’. Kipling allows him to continue to ‘take his peg and wine at dinner’. But ‘he never drank alone, and never let what he drank have the least hold on him’.

This would have been impossible. Moriarty should have abstained from alcohol absolutely and permanently. Nobody could voluntarily prevent alcohol from affecting them. It would have taken him a considerable length of time, probably several years, to become completely free of his dependency on alcohol.

In ‘La Nuit Blanche’, (1887), Kipling gives a vivid description of the visual and auditory hallucinations suffered by someone in delirium tremens:

‘In the full, fresh fragrant morning
I observed a camel crawl,
Laws of gravitation scorning
On the ceiling and the wall.
Then I watched a fender walking,
And I heard grey leeches sing,
And a red-hot monkey talking
Did not seem the proper thing.


Then a Creature, skinned and crimson,
Ran about the floor and cried,
And they said I had the “jims” on,
And they dosed me with bromide.
And they locked me in my bedroom –
Me and one wee Blood-Red Mouse –
Though I said:- “To give my head room
“You had best unroof the house.”’

There is no evidence that Kipling was ever a heavy drinker or suffered from delirium tremens. Before the first verse of La Nuit Blanche he wrote:

‘A much-discerning Public hold
The Singer generally sings
Of personal and private things,
And prints and sells his past for gold


Whatever I may here disclaim,
The very clever folk I sing to
Will most indubitably cling to
Their pet delusion, just the same.’

When he was working on the Civil and Military Gazette in Lahore he got first hand experience of delirium tremens as he recorded in his autobiography:

‘Our proof-readers (sometimes we had a brace of them) drank, which was expected; but systematic and prolonged D.T. on their part gave me more than my share of their work.’ [Something of Myself, p.43.]

When the Kiplings set off on their honeymoon in January 1892 they took one of their wedding presents in their luggage:

‘A generous silver flask filled with whisky but of incontinent habit. It leaked in the valise where it lay with flannel shirts. It scented the entire Pullman from end to end ere we arrived at the cause. By that time all our fellow-passengers were pitying the poor girl who had linked her life to this shameless inebriate.’ 8.

In “The Dog Hervey” (1914) in A Diversity of Creatures, Miss Sichliffe’s father, a retired doctor, had made a lot of money by taking in young men with drink problems, treating them until they were fit again and then, having insured them heavily, letting them out into the world again ‘with an appetite’. Presumably they all started drinking again and died of alcohol-related problems, allowing him to claim the insurance money.
Hangover ‘Cure’

In From Sea To Sea, Vol.1, Chapter XXVI, p.492, Kipling wrote of a concoction called ‘Button Punch’ which he had discovered in a bar in San Francisco. This is thought to be similar to a ‘Pisco Sour’ which is Pisco brandy with syrup, lemon juice, egg white and a dash of angostura. (Courtesy of Thomas Pinney) . [Stewart,D H, (Editor), Kipling’s America, Travel Letters, 1889-1895, ELT Press, North Carolina, 2003.]


During Kipling’s lifetime smoking was not thought to be harmful, apart from causing a headache if one smoked excessively. Most men smoked, but few women.According to William Moore:

‘Tobacco smoking in moderation may prove beneficial. Tobacco, like tea, coffee, and alcohol, restrains the waste of animal tissue, while it also exercises a tranquillising influence on those accustomed to its use….It is possibly true that tobacco is obnoxious to microbes in the mouth. But, as with alcohol, excess will, by the subsequent depression and nervousness so induced, predispose to those maladies against which moderate use may afford some preservative influence.’ [Moore, William, A Manual of Hygiene and Family Medicine for India, Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi, re-print 1989, p.595.]

When he was at school at Westward Ho ! Kipling and his contemporaries all smoked. This was against the rules for all except the Prefects. They were allowed to smoke pipes, and then only ‘under restrictions’:

‘If any of the rank and file were caught smoking, they came up before the Prefects, not on moral grounds, but for usurping the privileges of the Ruling Caste.’

Westward Ho! was probably not a typical school of its time. In “The United Idolators” (1924) in Debits and Credits, a new teacher, Mr Brownell, is horrified to find one of the boys smoking. The school Chaplain, the Reverend John, explains that the boys in the Army class were allowed to smoke, ‘within limits, out of doors’ , because the school had to compete with ‘crammer establishments’ , (cramming boys for the Army entrance examinations) where smoking was ‘usual’ . Mr Brownell has very definite views on the results of allowing schoolboys to smoke:

‘Mr Brownell, who knew what smoking led to, testified out of his twelve years’ experience of what he called the Animal Boy. He left little unexplored or unexplained.’

The Reverend John tries to calm him down:

‘…their actual smoking doesn’t amount to much. They talk a great deal about their brands of tobacco. Practically, it makes them rather keen on putting down smoking among the juniors – as an encroachment on their privilege, you see…’

Mr Brownell isn’t convinced. He thinks boys found smoking should be expelled. The Reverend John thinks Mr Brownell ‘would leave at the end of the term, but that he would have the ‘deuce of a time first’.
‘Pot’ Mullins, Head of Games, whose standing in the school is far superior to that of the masters, lends the chaplain a fuzee to light his own pipe, and continues his ‘meditations’

‘…from time to time rubbing up the gloss on his new seven-and-sixpenny silver-mounted, rather hot, myall-wood pipe, with its very thin crust in the bowl’.

When Kipling left India and travelled east with Mr and Mrs Hill, he wrote some advice for globe-trotters taking a similar route:

‘Above all, he should bring with him thousands of cheroots – enough to serve him until he reaches ’Frisco. Singapur is the last place on the line where you can buy Burmas. Beyond that point wicked men sell Manila cigars with fancy names for ten, and Havanas for thirty-five cents. No one inspects your boxes ’till you reach ’Frisco. Bring, therefore, at least one thousand cheroots.’
[From Sea To Sea, Vol.1, p.456,(No XX1, 1889).]

When he was living in Villiers Street in London, Kipling must have been smoking a pipe most of the time for he wrote:

‘The excellent tobacco of those days was, unless you sank to three penny ‘Shag’ or soared to sixpenny ‘Turkish’, tuppence the half-ounce….’

During the Boer War, some of the money collected for the ‘Absent-Minded Beggar Fund’ was spent on tobacco. Pipes were more popular than cigarettes among the troops, but some preferred to chew their tobacco:

‘Men smoked pipes more than cigarettes at that epoch, and the popular brand was a cake – chewable also – called “Hignett’s True Affection”.

When he was writing Kim (1901), Kipling took the manuscript ‘to be smoked over’ with his Father:

‘Under our united tobaccos it grew like the Djinn released from the brass bottle…’

In The New Army In Training (1915), Kipling describes seeing native (Indian) troops drinking tobacco:

Then one heard the deep racking tobacco-cough in the lee of a tent where four or five men – Kangra folk by the look of them – were drinking tobacco out of a cow’s horn. Their own country’s tobacco, be sure, for English tobacco… But there was no need to explain. Who would have dreamed to smell bazar-tobacco on a south-country golf links?

In “In The Interests of the Brethren” (1918) Debits and Credits, Mr Burges, a senior figure in a Masonic Lodge which is a sanctuary for soldiers, is a tobacconist and an expert in everything to do with smoking tobacco. There is a loving description of his shop:

It had been established by his grandfather in 1827, but the fittings and appointments must have been at least half a century older. The brown and red tobacco- and snuff-jars, with Crowns, Garters, and names of forgotten mixtures in gold leaf; the polished ‘Oronoque’ tobacco-barrels on which favoured customers sat ; the cherry-black mahogany counter, the delicately moulded shelves, the reeded cigar-cabinets, the German-silver-mounted scales, and the Dutch brass roll- and cake-cutter, were things to covet.

Mr Burges is of the opinion that:

‘not one man in five thousand has a tobacco-palate. Preference, yes. Palate, no.’

On several occasions in later life, Kipling was advised by his doctors to cut down on his smoking or to give it up completely but he never succeeded.