Molecular Advent Day 19: Heroin

“Uncovering strengths

Going to any length to be …..”

Today, our founder and chief scientific consultant, Dr David Glowacki, decided to delve a bit deeper into the sinister and intriguing past of heroin:

Heroin is morphine’s more illicit cousin, whose use and abuse has been highlighted through depictions within a wide range of cultural iconography over the years. For example, beat author William S. Burroughs and also Scottish author Irvine Welsh have written well-known novels about the impacts of heroin addiction. It also features strongly in the history of jazz music, with artists like Miles Davis and John Coltrane having struggled with heroin addictions. Coltrane’s battle in overcoming his heroin addiction in fact led to some of his best-known work, including the highly acclaimed jazz album “A Love Supreme”.

Bayer heroin bottle (image courtesy of
Bayer heroin bottle (image courtesy of Wikipedia)


Heroin’s chemical name is “diamorphine”. It was first synthesized in 1874 by C. R. Alder Wright in London, who was actually carrying out work to find a less addictive and less potent alternative to morphine. Diamorphine was rediscovered several years later (in 1897) at Bayer pharmaceutical company, who were similarly hoping for a weaker form of morphine. However, it turned out that diamorphine’s effects were considerably stronger than those of morphine, and this fact led Bayer scientists to coin the name “heroin”. The name derives from the German heroisch, which has its roots in the ancient Greek word ήρως (pronounced as “heros”) and has meanings associated with being “heroic” and “strong”.

Until 1910, Heroin was marketed as a non-addictive morphine substitute and cough suppressant. Eventually, its extremely addictive properties led to its being banned across much of the world. Nevertheless, heroin and its opiate cousins continue to play an extremely role in modern medicine and pain management. As shown in the figure below, heroin possesses the classical 5-ring structure that is common to large classes of opiates, including its close relatives codeine, vicodin (aka hydrocodone), and oxycontin (aka oxycodone). Without powerful molecules like these, pain management of the sort required following major trauma (like that which occurs in accidents and major surgeries) would be difficult to tolerate.