The phrase “truth serum” is a part of our lexicon, and we hear it in movies and read it in novels, but what does childbirth and scopolamine have to do with truth serum? I’ve written about scopolamine before, here, and briefly mentioned childbirth, but not truth serum. But trust me, they are related, and it’s a great story worth telling. But first, a quote:
“Through twilight sleep a new era has dawned for woman and through her for the whole human race.” (1)
Wow. How do you follow that? Probably by explaining what twilight sleep is, and no, it has nothing to do with Chuck Norris or hyperhormonal teenage vampires.
Twilight sleep was the term used for the combination of morphine and scopolamine given to women during childbirth. It was popularized by Dr. Carl Gauss, a German physician, in 1903 (2). He sought a replacement for chloroform, a chemical popularized in the 1800’s, which often had deadly consequences. The combination of using scopolamine with morphine was shared with the medical community in 1907, and after some early jitters, became a part of nearly every physician’s arsenal. Due to superb marketing by
drug pushers manufacturers, it took the world by storm: “Men write to us that they are extinguishing the fear of child-birth, putting a stop to family quarrels, and one man goes so far as to predict an increase in the birthrate of the American women as a result.” That’s quite the sales pitch.
The way it worked, or was supposed to work at least, was that the morphine created analgesia while the scopolamine created amnesia. Women reported no pain at all and most were completely unaware that they had delivered a child at all: “The head nurse … gave me an injection of scopolamine-morphine. … I woke up the next morning about half-past seven … the door opened, and the head nurse brought in my baby. … I was so happy. (3)” So while that’s all well and good for the mother, husbands and doctors remember the woman screaming in pain. The twilight sleep also removes the emotional aspect of childbirth, and any bond formed with the child during the process. Many women did not recognize their child when they awoke from their slumber.
But it was not all rainbows and unicorns. Many physicians reported dangerous complications to the newly delivered child. As early as 1911 it was reported that of 18 births, 7 were born “sleepy and cyanosed”, while 2 were “badly asphyxiated.” (4). These conditions were due to morphine, no doubt, as it is a central nervous system depressant whose properties are well known today.
The twilight sleep saga gets more interesting, when in September of 1916, Dr. Robert House delivered the twilight sleep to a woman in labor. The childbirth was successful, and while the woman was asleep, Dr. House wished to weigh the baby. The husband reported that he could not find the scales, when the woman, still (apparently) sleeping, spoke up and said “they are in the kitchen on a nail behind the picture.” (5) Dr. House was intrigued by this, and continued to use the twilight sleep in his practice. He came to the conclusion that “under the influence of the drug, there is no imagination, they cannot create a lie because they have no power to think or reason.” (5) Dr. House imagined a large number of applications for such a drug, most of them involving crime.
In 1922 Dr. House administered scopolamine to two prisoners in the Dallas County Jail. Upon questioning them he discovered that their stories had not changed and that they were unable to lie. His experiments led to the acquittal of both men. A Dallas newspaper coined the term “truth serum” when reporting on Dr. House’s works, a phrase Dr. House abhorred as scopolamine was not a serum, in the medical sense, at all. Nonetheless, the phrase stuck, making scopolamine the first “truth serum” and Dr. House its father.
“If it is permissible for a state to take life, liberty and property because of crime, it can be made legal to obtain information from a suspected criminal by the use of a drug. If the use of bloodhounds is legal, the use of scopolamine can be made legal.” Dr. Robert House
Over the next decade Dr. House continued to use scopolamine in interrogations around the country, but with just as many foes as advocates. Many jurisdictions, including one in Seattle in 1932, legally halted the use of scopolamine in an effort to find a murder victims body. The courts opinion was that scopolamine “violated the privilege against self-incrimination.” (6) Dr. House saw things differently, and saw the use of scopolamine as less barbaric than simply beating a confession out of a suspect. In an ironic twist, many confessions were obtained just by mentioning the use of scopolamine. Suspects were afraid to be put under its powers. Perhaps because they did not know what other crimes they may confess? Overall, its use was controversial.
Dr. House died in 1930, and with his passing went scopolamine as a criminology tool and its advocate. With “truth serum” being shown the door, the “lie detector test” was ushered in. And that’s the story of childbirth, scopolamine, and truth serum.
1. “Twilight Sleep Is Subject of New Investigation.” New York Times 31 Jan. 1915.
2. “Twilight Sleep: The Dammerschlaf of the Germans” Can Med Assoc J. 5.9 (1915): 805–808.
3. Leavitt, Judith Walzer. “Birthing and Anesthesia: The Debate over Twilight Sleep.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 6.1 (1980): 147.
4. Corbett, D. “The Use Of Scopolamine-Morphine In Labour.” British Medical Journal 1.2624 (1911): 868-69.
5. House, R.E. “The Use of Scopolamine in Criminology.” American Journal of Police Science 2.4 (1931):328-336.
6. Geis, G. “In Scopolamine Veritas. The Early History of Drug-Induced Statements.” The Journal of Criminal Law, Criminology, and Police Science 50.4 (1959):347-357.