I have worked in education and entertainment and am also an historian and businessman and currently studying at the Open University.
Long before it became a rock n' roll cliché, drug use was extremely common throughout the globe for centuries. Here are just a handful of famous drug users, some of which might come as a surprise.
11 Famous Historical Figures Who Were Also Drug Users
- Robert Clive (Clive of India): Opium
- Horatio Nelson: Opium
- William Wilberforce: Opium
- Frédéric Chopin: Opium
- Charles Dickens: Opium
- Sigmund Freud: Cocaine
- Tsar Nicholas II: Opium, Cocaine, and Morphine
- Winston Churchill: Barbiturates
- Hermann Goering: Morphine and Cocaine
- Anthony Eden: Amphetamines and Barbiturates
- Leonid Brezhnev: Barbiturates
1. Robert Clive (Clive of India) (1725–1774): Opium
Robert Clive was in and out of trouble in his youth, even running a protection racket with his gang of teenage delinquents in his native Market Drayton, Shropshire, England, which was probably good training for an imperial pioneer. Eventually, his despairing father got him a job with the British East India Company and sent him abroad to sort him out.
Suffering from depression, he attempted suicide and failed, which probably made him even more miserable.
As Britain and France fought for control of the sub-continent trade, however, Clive became a soldier and gained a reputation as a formidable and fearless fighter. After the Black Hole of Calcutta incident, Clive was given command of the relieving army and won key battles which allowed the British to establish their empire in India.
Suffering severe abdominal pains, Clive became addicted to opium, which wouldn't have helped his mood swings. Becoming fabulously rich did nothing to ease what we would now call bipolar disorder, and Clive succeeded in killing himself in 1774. His pet tortoise outlived him by 232 years, dying in Calcutta Zoological Gardens in 2006.
2. Horatio Nelson (1758–1805): Opium
Let's face it, a man who lost an eye and an arm in the line of duty must have known a thing or two about pain, so it's hardly surprising that Britain's greatest naval hero became dependent on opiates.
Horatio Nelson was a mess health-wise. He was famously seasick at the beginning of every voyage and suffered from a whole range of afflictions such as scurvy, yellow fever, malaria, heatstroke, and depression over the course of his career. No wonder he needed cheering up a bit.
Nelson gave us the expression "to turn a blind eye" after famously, and probably apocryphally, ignoring the signal not to attack at the Battle of Copenhagen by putting his telescope to his damaged (though not fully blind) eye and claiming he couldn't see it. He lost most of the sight in his right eye due to a shell explosion, though he never wore an eye-patch despite the popular image of him with one.
In 1797 in Tenerife, he was hit by a musket ball which shattered his right arm. Amputation was not a clean painless operation in those days, and Nelson was left to recover with brandy and an opium pill—supposedly back on duty and giving orders half an hour later, but with the beginning of a habit he would take to the grave.
3. William Wilberforce (1759–1833): Opium
Despite having gone down in history as the leader of the Abolitionist movement against the transatlantic slave trade, Wilberforce was not the politically correct liberal that he is made out to be. Despite campaigning for the end of the trade, he was not at all keen to see an end to slavery itself, believing that those already in bondage were unfit for anything else.
At Easter 1786, Wilberforce became a born-again Christian, giving up alcohol in the process. Like women's suffrage, gay rights, and other historically unpopular causes that eventually get accepted and (mostly) taken for granted in the end, Wilberforce's radical and extreme ideas regarding the abolishing of the slave trade were met with ridicule and derision at first—and his ideas were blocked at every step during the 1790s and early 19th century.
Suffering from ill health for most of his life, and no doubt needing a bit of cheering up, he was prescribed the new "wonder drug", opium, and soon developed a habit. Although too ill to lead the final charge, Wilberforce lived to see gradual change, dying three days after the final passage of the emancipation bill had been accepted.
Several establishments are named after him, including a barrister's chambers in Lincoln's Inn as well as a street in Finsbury Park, both in London.
4. Frédéric Chopin (1810–1849): Opium
The son of two musician parents and like Mozart, Beethoven and Mendelssohn, a child musical prodigy, Frédéric Chopin gave his first public concerto performance at the age of eight.
Poland's most famous composer left his country for Paris on the eve of the 1830 war with Russia, never to return. Establishing friendships with other leading musicians of the day including Mendelssohn, Liszt, and Berlioz, he became one of the leading lights in what is known as the Romantic period, composing the "Minute Waltz", "Fantaisie Impromptu", and numerous sonatas, preludes, and other masterpieces.
Chopin became a French citizen but is claimed by patriotic Poles as their own alongside Marie Curie, another Polish hero who took French citizenship. He even has a brand of Polish vodka named after him.
Although it's clichéd behavior in the world of rock, classical musicians and composers also had their excesses, and Chopin became dependent on opium after developing the tuberculosis which would finally kill him at the age of just 39. Ill health plagued him most of his life, even causing him to postpone his marriage to Maria Wodzinski. The relationship ended soon after.
Chopin's final performance was at the Guildhall in London at a benefit for Polish refugees.
5. Charles Dickens (1812–1870): Opium
Arguably one of Britain's greatest novelists, Charles Dickens has blue plaques all over London. Although he wasn't the first to write about the underclass, he was probably the best, and his influence is reflected in everyday expressions such as "give someone the creeps", "slow-coach" (both from David Copperfield) and "Scrooge".
Dickens' work was serialized in publications of the time and, as the majority of the public were illiterate, people would club together to pay someone to read his work aloud to them. As J.K. Rowling is credited for encouraging reading amongst children, so Charles Dickens is credited for encouraging literacy itself.
Dickens burnt the midnight oil in more ways than one. Fond of unwinding with a hookah of opium at night, this was a habit he took to the grave, dying of a stroke aged only 58 in 1870. Whether this was habit related, we can only speculate.
At the time of his death he was writing The Mystery of Edwin Drood, which includes the character "Opium Sal".
6. Sigmund Freud (1856–1939): Cocaine
Sigmund Freud, who spoke eight languages while many British people can't even speak their own, is the classic image of popular psychiatry that springs to mind when the subject arises. Few people are as synonymous with their industry as Freud.
Cocaine was talked about in medical circles as a new, cure-all wonder drug. and Freud was one of its earliest advocates. He wrote a scientific paper extolling its virtues, particularly as a painkiller and antidepressant, set up medical experiments, distributed it among friends, and no doubt got himself invited to every party in Vienna.
When its side effects began to be discovered, however, he stopped advocating its use publicly, though still used it extensively for 12 years until mysteriously stopped the day after his father's funeral in 1896.
A prominent Jewish figure, Freud underestimated the threat of Nazism and only just managed to get out of Austria after the Anschluss of 1938, settling in London where he died a year later aged 83.
7. Tsar Nicholas II (1868–1918): Opium, Cocaine, and Morphine
The massacre of the last of the Romanovs and his family brought Imperial Russia to an end and heralded the establishment of the Soviet Union under the Bolsheviks.
The last Tsar of Russia didn't have an easy time of it. Like many of Queen Victoria of Britain's descendants, his son Alexei was a hemophiliac, Victoria being the carrier, and he was often in agony from internal bleeding in his joints. The not-so-holy holy-man Grigori Rasputin was the only person who could relieve his pain, likely by using hypnosis, thus gaining unprecedented power at court and adding to the tsar's unpopularity.
State-sponsored antisemitic pogroms were rife across Russia, and Jews were fleeing West across Europe and to America. The war against Japan at the beginning of the century had gone badly. Crops were failing across the country, and demonstrators against the tsar and the government were being massacred in the cities.
On top of all that, the First World War wasn't going very well. The whole country was in chaos, and the tsar and his family were presumed to be living in luxury away from it all.
Nicholas suffered from a number of physical ailments brought on by stress and spent his last two years high on a cocktail of addictive and dangerous uppers and downers as well as hallucinogens. Visitors to the Winter Palace would comment on his ghost-like appearance, his apparent lack of concern towards the impending crisis, and his indifference towards the danger he and his family were in.
8. Winston Churchill (1874–1965): Barbiturates
During peacetime, Winston Churchill was almost universally hated in Britain. As home secretary, he famously sent the military against striking miners and suffragettes and tried to stir up trouble during the general strike. Some people are just born fighters.
Having served with distinction in the military as a soldier and war correspondent, even escaping a POW camp during the Boer War, Churchill was the brains behind the reckless Gallipoli fiasco during the First World War.
Despite this, the idea of anyone else leading Britain through World War II was practically unthinkable, and of course, this is what he was most famous for. Such was his pugnacity that the king had to overrule him to stop him leading the troops at the D-Day landings, where he would have no doubt joined the rest of the extras at the beginning of Saving Private Ryan.
Though most famously a drinker of gargantuan amounts, towards the end of his life, the great British war leader (who was in fact half American) suffered from his "black dog", as he called his depression, and became hopelessly dependent on his “majors, minors, reds, greens and Lord Morans" (named after his doctor), right through his second stint as British PM in the 1950s.
However, a drunken, chain-smoking drug addict like Churchill still beating a teetotal, supposedly vegetarian, health freak non-smoker like Hitler is food for thought.
9. Hermann Goering (1893–1946): Morphine and Cocaine
Former ace fighter pilot during the First World War, the commander of the Luftwaffe and Hitler’s deputy Hermann Goering spent most of World War II in a “near comatose state of narcotic stupor".
In 1925, he was sectioned in Sweden as a dangerous drug addict, where he eventually attacked a nurse. During the 1930s, he was well known for indulging in sex and drug parties, both hetero and homosexual.
Cocaine was fashionable among the Nazi elite and Goering was a heavy user. Morphine was his first love, however, with him becoming addicted after being wounded during the First World War. By the time of his arrest in 1945, he was averaging 100 codeine tablets a day.
He was detoxed before his trial at Nuremberg and displayed a razor sharp mind and intellect. The biggest fish at the trials, he managed to cheat the hangman, taking cyanide the night before his scheduled execution.
A painting he had commissioned in 1934 showing him slumped in a chair with narrowed pupils and a vacant stare outraged him so much that he demanded it be altered or destroyed. The Jewish Hungarian artist Imre Goth refused and fled Germany for England. The surviving painting was auctioned in 2013.
Goering's anti-Nazi younger brother Albert used his name to help Jews escape the Nazis during World War II at huge personal risk. His heroic role in history has only recently come to light.
10. Anthony Eden (1897–1977): Amphetamines and Barbiturates
As Winston Churchill’s successor after his second stint as PM, Eden had some very big boots to fill. As his predecessor is synonymous with World War Two, so Anthony Eden will be forever associated with his own war, the Suez debacle, which in 1956 saw Britain finished almost overnight as a world power.
General Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal (an important and lucrative trade route), much to the anger of Britain and France, who decided Nasser was another Hitler and that nationalizing a canal that ran through his own country was tantamount to invading Poland.
A dodgy deal involving Israel declaring war on Egypt with France and Britain moving in to mediate—thus taking back control of the canal—backfired, and the U.S. got involved. Dwight Eisenhower gave everyone a good telling off, Nasser's position was stronger than ever, and Eden was humiliated. Suffering from numerous health problems due to complications from an ulcer, he resigned a year later in favor of Harold Macmillan.
Eden was in constant pain, taking numerous drugs such as amphetamine, Benzedrine, and Drinamyl. This didn't help his mood swings, and he was often prone to hysterical outbursts about Nasser when intoxicated. It is likely that his use of stimulants was not an aid to his judgement during the Suez affair.
11. Leonid Brezhnev (1906–1982): Barbiturates
After the excitable Nikita Khrushchev, the successive Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was the other extreme, spending the last 10 years of his life destroying his central nervous system with a lethal cocktail of barbiturates.
His public appearances were famous for their lack of animation and gave rise to the rumor that he was dead long before he actually was. His assistants admitted they had to set him on his feet and propel him forward as though they were “kick starting a car”.
His official cause of death was a heart attack, but rumors have surfaced that Brezhnev actually overdosed, accidentally or otherwise.
After Brezhnev, the Soviet Union went through two other inanimate leaders, Yuri Andropov and Konstantin Chernenko, who both looked as lifeless as Brezhnev had been and who both died after two minutes in office before Gorbachev took over—the Soviet Union collapsed a few years later. After having a barbiturate addict running the place, Russia later got an alcoholic, Boris Yeltsin, in charge.
- Robert Clive l The New World Encyclopedia
- Sugden, Jonn. Nelson: The Sword of Albion. Random House, 2012.
- Why Do Christians Deny William Wilberforce's Drug Addiction? l Sojourners
- From the Piano of an Opium Eater l Interlude
- Charles Dickens and Opium l Dickens & Co.
- A Brief History of Freud's Love Affair with Cocaine l Vice
- Steinberg, Mark D. and Khrustalëv, Vladimir M. The Fall of the Romanovs: Political Dreams and Personal Struggles in a Time of Revolution. Yale University Press, 1995.
- Winston Churchill's drinking was one thing, but what about his drug-taking? l Telegraph
- Hermann Göring Was The Second-Most Powerful Man In Nazi Germany — And He Loved To Party l All That's Interesting
- Eden 'was on purple hearts during Suez crisis' l Independent
- Bacon, Edwin and Sandle, Mark. Brezhnev Reconsidered. Palgrave Macmillan, 2002.
Daniel J Hurst (author) from London on June 21, 2018:
It's true that once the British government decided heroin was safer in the hands of gangsters rather than doctors, the number of addicts here multiplied massively. The same in the US with prohibition in the 20's. The alcohol that the general public got was just as dangerous as street grade heroin. But can they put the genie back in the bottle?
Kelley Marks from Sacramento, California on June 20, 2018:
This is a good article - all those oldtimey drug addicts, at least some of whom I've never heard of. Of course, in the 1800s to the early 1900s drugs such as meth, heroin and coke were legal or easy obtained with a prescription. When that stuff's legal look out. Of course, maybe all of it should be legal . . . ? Later!...
Daniel J Hurst (author) from London on June 14, 2018:
Well that's true, but everyone knows about them. I thought it'd be more interesting to list the unlikely ones.
Liz Westwood from UK on June 14, 2018:
There are probably sometimes, such as the 60s, when you could list loads of drug-takers.
Daniel J Hurst (author) from London on June 13, 2018:
It did occur to me but I thought I'd better keep it real otherwise I'll end up with more fictional characters than actual people. Also wanted to avoid the obvious choices-Clapton and Billie Holliday etc.
Liz Westwood from UK on June 13, 2018:
This is an interesting article. I wasn't aware of a lot of these. I guess you could always add the fictional Sherlock Holmes in for good measure!