Queen Victoria still grips our imaginations. The latest revelations, coming soon in the movie ‘Victoria and Abdul’, concern her attachment to an Indian Muslim called Abdul Karim, presented to her as a ‘gift from India’. The book on which the film is based was written by Shrabani Basu. Although most of the Queen’s letters to him were destroyed, some survive, as do her diaries in Hindustani, so this story is backed up by primary evidence.
That’s not the case for everything one reads about the Queen. One of the more bizarre claims about Victoria was that she used cannabis; indeed, it’s one of my favourite examples of Bad History. The most commonly repeated version of this story follows the claims made by Dr Phil Leveque, a prominent campaigner for legalising cannabis for medical purposes. Keen to be known as ‘the pot doc’, Leveque died in 2015 (appropriately, in Happy Valley).
In 2009, Leveque claimed that ‘Queen Victoria was the first woman to use marijuana for PMS’. This, he wrote, ‘occurred a few months after Dr. O’Shaughnessy brought cannabis to England about 1840. It was a new highly efficacious drug so let’s try it. It was prescribed by a Dr. Sir Russel [sic] Reynolds physician to Queen Victoria.’ That ‘a few months’ may make you think there’s a mention in the queen’s diaries or letters, or in some other primary source: there isn’t. Leveque’s credentials are hard to pin down: he lost his licence to practise in Oregon in 2004 due to allegations of improper prescribing, and is found online as ‘a Professor of Pharmacology, employed by the University of London for 20 years’, or for 2 years (!); as ‘not a regular MD, but an Osteopath’ who ‘taught for the University of London’; and as ‘an esteemed Osteopathic Physician, Professor of Pharmacology and Forensic Toxicologist’. But not a historian. No.
What about Sir John Russell Reynolds? While Leveque mentioned PMS, most people prefer to link the queen to period pains, the treatment of which has a substantial history; possibly Leveque didn’t know the difference. This is where Reynolds comes in, for example, here, ‘Queen Victoria was prescribed cannabis for this reason by her physician J.R. Reynolds’. Reynolds, a physician to the royal household not in 1840 but from 1878 until his death in 1896, did indeed recommend cannabis not only for migraine, epilepsy, depression, and asthma, but also for ‘simple spasmodic dysmenorrhoea’. He claimed in The Lancet, 1890, that cannabis ‘when pure and administered carefully, is one of the most valuable medicines we possess’. But that dating doesn’t match Leveque’s claim for Victoria’s use in 1840.
There are three further problems with the link to Reynolds. First, by the time Reynolds published the 1890 article Victoria would have been 60 years of age; would she even have been menstruating then? We could get around that by suggesting he had been experimenting with the drug for some time before he published, but … experimenting on the queen?
Second, playing up the role of Reynolds as ‘her’ physician obscures the fact that there were several of them, as does another variation in which he becomes ‘the’ court physician. Victoria’s ‘Medical Household’ was extensive, including many medical practitioners across different parts of her realm. And this brings me to the third problem: Reynolds was physician to the royal household, not to Victoria herself. His role didn’t cover the royal family itself, their medical needs being served instead by the physicians-in-ordinary. So, contrary to an editorial in the May 2017 British Medical Journal, not her ‘personal’ physician at all.
The myth was debunked brilliantly in 2003, before Leveque got hold of it, by the historian Virginia Berridge. In ‘Queen Victoria’s Cannabis Use: Or, How History Does and Does Not Get Used in Drug Policy Making’, Addiction Research & Theory, 11, 213-5, she observed that
This ‘historical fact’ emerged sometime in the late 1990s as part of the rehabilitation of the medical use of cannabis, first officially promoted in the UK in the report of the House of Lords Science and Technology committee in 1998.
This would make it not so old as the myth of Cleopatra’s bee-powered vibrator, which seems to have been made up in 1992, although since I first wrote this a reader has come up with an earlier reference for the Victoria story, mentioned in 1985 at an Iron Maiden concert – see the comments below for details!
In policy discussions, however, the story of Victoria’s use of cannabis just won’t go away. It turned up in 1999 in debates on legalisation of cannabis in Western Australia, https://lawlex.com.au/tempstore/WA/Hansard/17571.pdf but surfaced again in 2013 in similar discussions in Tasmania, where one submission claimed:
One of the biggest medical uses of weed in the 19th century was for the treatment of menstrual problems and decrease of parturition ache. Queen Victoria was directed to use marijuana for this reason by her physician J.R.Reynolds and in the US it could be bought freely in shops. In the Lancet medical journal J.R.Reynolds published a paper saying that ‘when pure and administered carefully, it (marijuana) is one of the most valuable medicines we possess’.
So here the ‘needs of policy agendas’ generate, and go on generating, ‘historical facts’. And these fake facts are more powerful than the truth. Berridge noted that The Guardian repeated the myth several times in 1999 and 2000, but it hasn’t stopped. In the edition of 19 September 2016, a piece by Dr Luisa Dillner opened with the confident statement that ‘Queen Victoria was prescribed cannabis for period pains’. The BBC is also very attached to this fake fact. The BBC Panorama programme on the drug, ‘Cannabis from the Chemist’, broadcast on 4 November 2001, commented ‘Queen Victoria used it – why not us?’ and the myth also featured in an episode of The Victorian Pharmacy.
And that’s the problem with so much Bad History: it’s also a Good Story. In this case, ‘today’s desire for salacious details about this most proper of monarchs’, as Kristina Aikens put it, is something to do with the image of Victoria we once had, and the naughty thrill of claiming that she ‘did drugs’. But it also plays so well into arguments for legalisation of cannabis, since if ‘even she did it’, why shouldn’t we?
To find out more:
James H. Mills, Cannabis Britannica: Empire, Trade, and Prohibition 1800-1928, Oxford University Press, 2003