The use of morphine, an opiate medication derived from the poppy plant, during World War II was nothing new in the history of warfare, but its delivery systems were. Given the increased destructive capabilities of Second World War weapons compared to those of the First World War, soldiers (not to mention civilians) had an ever-greater need for effective pain relief.
Variations of opium have been around for centuries – likely longer – and morphine, named after Morpheus, the god of dreams in Greek mythology, was developed partly as an alternative to opium and alcohol. Doctors soon realized, however, that morphine was more addictive than either. In 1853, the hypodermic needle was developed and the use of morphine became more widespread. Nevertheless, morphine’s analgesic qualities were undeniable, and its use was widespread in Europe, namely Germany, during the 19th century, as well as in America, particularly during the Civil War.
Some estimates suggest that as many as 400,000 soldiers became addicted to morphine during the Civil War, an armed conflict in which few combatants actually died from bullets or cannon balls as opposed to the diseases that resulted afterwards. Opiates were used to treat not just wounds but chronic campaign diseases such as diarrhea, dysentery, and malaria. During the First World War, morphine was injected with a syringe, but during the interwar period scientists developed self-contained morphine administrators.
Shortly before WWII, the E.R. Squibb & Sons pharmaceutical company from Brooklyn, New York developed an expendable device, a so-called syrette, for the administration of morphine. The Army started using it from 1940. It was similar to a syringe but it had a closed flexible metal tube instead of a rigid tube and piston. On top of the tube, there was a hypodermic needle with a transparent plastic cover which was inserted a metal wire loop, designed to pierce the inner seal of the tube to allow the medication to flow by squeezing the tube.