Making morphine in wartime Australia

The ACT Government recently passed laws legalising the use and cultivation of cannabis in small quantities. The move has renewed debate around whether official ‘endorsement’ encourages the use of psychoactive agents.

Yet during World War II, the Australian Government employed prisoners of war to grow opium in regional Australia. It was considered a national necessity by the Medical Equipment Control Committee (MECC), an organisation set up to manage rationing and production of medical essentials.

At the outbreak of hostilities in September 1939, the Australian Government quickly acknowledged that the country was reliant on imports for many medical needs, from intravenous syringes to industrial chemicals.

In October 1940, opium-based medications were added to the list after German bombers destroyed a massive stockpile in London. With Turkish neutrality blocking the main pre-war origin of opium supply, by late 1941 alternative sources from India, the Middle East and North America also dwindled.

“We must have morphia and we must have it quickly”, urged the head of the MECC, esteemed surgeon Sir Alan Newton, in August 1942. The committee considered morphine – a powerful painkiller derived from opium – to be “perhaps the most important of all drugs”.

Morphine was a critical emergency treatment for wartime casualties and widely used in civilian practice. Opium preparations, however, were also highly addictive drugs that had long been rigidly policed by the Department of Trade and Customs.

So how could the nation’s need for this controlled narcotic be met in the midst of war?

An expensive failure

The solution was to commence growing opium poppies locally, while developing a process to convert them into medical-grade morphine.

Experimental sowing with imported seeds of Papaver somniferum was undertaken by the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). Agricultural scientists calculated that 100 hectares would provide the necessary raw material to meet Australia’s projected need for 160 kg of morphine.

By September 1943 there were 28 poppy plantations scattered across every Australian state except Western Australia. While many were established farms, other choices seem curious. Young British immigrants aged under 16 years worked on one crop at Dr Barnardo's Farm Training School near Picton, New South Wales. Italian, German and Japanese prisoners of war grew opium at the Hay internment camp in the Riverina district. Captured military personnel and interned enemy aliens also undertook the labour-intensive harvesting at Loveday camp in South Australia.

Meanwhile, by January 1942 Australian chemists had developed a secret, patented process for transforming raw opium plants directly into morphine. Melbourne-based pharmaceutical firm Felton, Grimwade & Duerdins then scaled up production, delivering the first supplies of home-grown morphine to Victorian doctors in mid-1942.

It was, however, an expensive procedure. At £10 per kg, Australian morphine cost four times the price of pre-war imports. Furthermore, poor yields and failing crops over 1943–44 led to a production crisis, and in late 1944 the restoration of overseas supply saw the scheme wound up.

Although the MECC deemed the venture a failure, CSIR continued to experiment with high morphine yield poppies after the war ended.