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Lest we forget: the poppy's role in history and medicine

As we mark Remembrance Day, Hull GP Dr Thomas Abraham offers a brief medical history of the poppy.

As we mark Remembrance Day, Hull GP Dr Thomas Abraham offers a brief medical history of the poppy.

From time immemorial, human life has been closely associated with the poppy. Celebrating the Remembrance Day brings a timely, poignant and painful reminder of its significance.

The Greek depicted Hypnos (sleep), Nyx (night) and Thantos (death) wreathed with poppies. Poppies were ornamental on the statues of Apollo, Aescalapius, Aphrodite, Pluto and Demeter. When Pluto abducted Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, he ate poppies in order to fall asleep and forget the grief. Poppy was considered magical as well as poisonous, and used in religious ceremonies.

Hippocrates (460-377 BC) has made references to the poppy in various medicinal preparations. He distinguished between red, white and black poppies and also was aware of the therapeutic effects of unripe, ripe and baked varieties. He mentions poppy juice as hypnotic, styptic and cathartic.

Herakleides of Pontus (340 BC) mentions the poppy as a means of euthanasia - ‘Since the population lives to a ripe old age, they do not wait until they are very old for death to take them, but take themselves out of life, some by means of poppy, others with hemlock.'

Celsus (first century AD) refers to the poppy as an antidote, hypnotic and painkiller. Galen (second century AD) mentions 'opium is the strongest of the drugs which numb the senses and induce a deadening sleep.'

Shakespeare was well aware of the medicinal effect of poppies.

‘Not poppy nor mandragora,
Nor all the drowsy syrups of the world,
Shall ever medicine thee to that sweet sleep
Which thou owed'st yesterday.'

Othello, III, iii, 334

Poppies grow in conditions of disturbed earth. In the early 19th century, the Napoleonic Wars transformed bare land into poppies grown around the bodies of dead soldiers.

In the First World War, some of the fiercest fighting occurred in the Flanders and Picardy regions of Belgium and northern France. After the mayhem, the fields were filled with flood of poppies. In 1915, John McCrae, a doctor serving with the Canadian Armed Forces, was deeply touched with the devastation he saw and wrote the poem In Flanders' Fields.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders Fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders Fields.

On the 11th hour of the11th day of the 11th month of 1918, the First World War ended. The poppy became a lasting symbol for the fallen heroes. American War Secretary Moina Michael, inspired by McCrae's poem, started selling poppies to raise money for ex-service community.

The first official British Legion Poppy Day was held on 11 November 1921. Since then, the Poppy Appeal has become a solemn ingredient in the nation's calendar. In 1922, Major George Howson formed the Disabled Society and suggested the simple design to allow disabled people to assemble the poppy with ease. The Poppy Factory was founded in Richmond, Surrey in the same year.

In 1933, white poppy was introduced by Women's Cooperative Guild, as a symbol of peace and end to all wars. But the British Legion did not approve of this and the initiative met premature extinction.

Poppy (Papaver somniferum) is an annual with red or white flowers growing on a central pod. The pod oozes out milky latex called opium, on scratching. This contains a variety of opiates including codeine and morphine, which are used extensively every day in medical practice.

Thus, the poppy, which thrived from the blood, tears and sweat of the fallen heroes, is being useful to alleviate the suffering of each one of us.

The poppy has a rich medical history The poppy has a rich medical history

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