Ether addiction

Addiction to ether consumption, or etheromania, is the addiction to the inhalation or drinking of diethyl ether, commonly called "ether". Studies, including that of an ether addict in 2003, have shown that ether causes dependence; however, the only symptom observed was a will to consume more ether. No withdrawal symptoms were prevalent.[1]

Bottle of diethyl ether from Slovakia


During the second half of the 19th century, ether was in vogue as a recreational drug in some places, becoming especially popular in Ireland, as temperance campaigners thought it was an acceptable alternative to alcohol.[2][3] Indeed until 1890, when it was classified as a poison, more than 17,000 gallons (77,000 L) of ether were being consumed in Ireland, mostly as a beverage.[3]

Addiction to ether consumption had posed a serious social problem in Poland between the two World Wars. The drinking of ether, as well as related liquids (Hoffman's drops) was commonplace and widespread foremost in the region of Upper Silesia.[4][5] According to surveys conducted in the 1930s, in certain villages a large portion of pupils of public schools had regularly drunk ether. Teachers had recalled that at certain times they had to send home pupils who were under the influence of the drug.[4] Common drinking of ether by mine workers had caused the issue of a restriction banning access by intoxicated persons to the mines (the main cause for concern was the risk of fire). Plant doctors had received a stark warning to drastically limit the purchases of ether and its mixtures for factory doctors' offices. The Catholic Church was engaged in fighting this addiction – it was often the topic of sermons, certain priests refused absolution to the addicted, and even reported their parishioners to the police. The consumption of ether was also spread in the regions of Suwałki, south-eastern Poland, the Beskidy mountains, Kujawy, Pomerania and around Częstochowa.

Ether came primarily from Germany, smuggled across the border with Germany, sometimes also from Czechoslovakia. Local authorities had estimated the smugglings to amount to thousands of kilograms per year.[4] Ether was primarily carried across the border by inhabitants living close to the border. Also, specially trained dogs were used to smuggle the ether. Both people and dogs had transported the goods in protruding metal containers which lay very close to the body and were attached to it with straps (termed blachany in local smuggler parlance, from the Polish word blacha meaning "steel sheets", from which they were made). Sometimes special compartments in cars were used, and attempts recorded include transporting ether via cable cars stretched across a border river.

Ether was distributed among the villages by wagons transporting straw, as well as by travelling salesmen, organ grinders and beggars. Within the villages themselves, ether was distributed in designated places, termed kapliczki ("chapels" in Polish). These were places both of sale and consumption. Many accidents caused by improper handling of fire were recorded at such places.


Consumption of ether had taken on diverse forms, beginning from drinking it undiluted, with a sip of water now and then. This was the most effective method; however, it also was quite dangerous: ether is very volatile, and boils at 35 degrees Celsius. It causes hiccups in its gas form, and in extreme cases it might cause the rupture of the stomach wall.[citation needed] Ether was usually diluted using water with a pinch of sugar, cinnamon or honey and cloves. The individual kapliczki had their own, heavily guarded recipes for concocting their exhilarating mixtures. Often, particularly amongst the working classes, such as miners, ether was consumed with coffee or raspberry juice.

Another recorded means of consumption was by inhalation of vapor, which develops at room temperature due to ether's volatility. The risks to the gastric system inherent in imbibing ether are avoided by using inhalation, and the effects are significantly shorter-lasting.


In 1923, the Polish Sejm had forbidden the sale of ether for consumption. In 1928, ether was officially classified as a drug - anti-drug legislation was extended to include it. Severe penalties - up to five years of imprisonment and high financial penalties - from that moment on were not only imposed for smuggling and trade of ether, but also for its possession.

In the second half of the 1930s, media as well as government institutions had focused on the problem. In May 1936 a special conference in Katowice was called by the Polish National Committee for Drugs and Prevention of Drug Addictions functioning within the Ministry of Employment and Social Policy.


The effects of ether intoxication are similar to those of alcohol intoxication, but more potent. Also, due to NMDA antagonism, the user may experience distorted thinking, euphoria, and visual/auditory hallucinations at higher doses.

Present situationEdit

Ether is still sometimes consumed in border areas of Poland, Slovakia, Lithuania and Estonia (Setomaa).[6]


In Tolstoy's War and Peace (set in 1812 and published in 1869) Countess Rostova's sitting-room is described as having a strong smell of Hoffman's drops (Book 3, part 3, chapter 13).

In an autobiographical work French author Patrick Modiano mentions his use of ether during the early '60s[7] and an indirect references occur in his novels. It is described as used by two characters in Georges Simenon's 1932 crime novel, L'ombre chinoise (English: Maigret Mystified).

Ether is referred to in Hunter S. Thompson's 1971 novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas for its drug effects, pointedly describing it as having the most powerful and depraved of possessions on men who take it. In fact it is seen in one of the book's most infamous quotes:

We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers... and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw ether and two dozen amyls.

... Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.

The only thing that really worried me was the ether. There is nothing in the world more helpless and irresponsible and depraved than a man in the depths of an ether binge.[8]

Thompson's descriptions of ether's effects in his novel are exaggerated and somewhat fictional, along with his invention of adrenochrome's psychedelic effects later in the book.

Dr. Wilbur Larch, in John Irving's novel The Cider House Rules, is an ether addict.

Dr. Foster—Ruth’s father, and Milkman Dead’s grandfather—is described as an ether addict in Toni Morrison’s novel Song of Solomon.

In the second season of the television series Borgia, Rodrigo Borgia, named Pope Alexander VI, and his mistress become addicted to sweet oil of vitriol (a sixteenth century name for diethyl ether). Delusions, paranoia, and hallucinations plague the pope as he falls deeper into his addiction.

Dr. Charles Montgomery, in the first season of American Horror Story, is shown to have acquired an ether addiction.


  1. ^ Krenz, Zimmermann, Kolly, Zullino 2003
  2. ^ Miller, Richard Lawrence (2002), "Ether", The Encyclopedia of Addictive Drugs, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, pp. 153–154, ISBN 978-0-313-31807-8, retrieved 7 November 2010
  3. ^ a b Martin, Paul (2008), Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure, London: Fourth Estate, p. 57, ISBN 978-0-00-712708-5
  4. ^ a b c Zandberg, Adrian (2010), ""Villages... Reek of Ether Vapours": Ether Drinking in Silesia before 1939", Medical History, vol. 54 no. 3, pp. 387–396, doi:10.1017/s002572730000466x, PMC 2890321, PMID 20592886
  5. ^ Abucewicz, Monika (2005), "Narkomania w Polsce jako problem społeczny w perspektywie konstrukcjonistycznej Część pierwsza: okres międzywojenny" (PDF), Alkoholizm i Narkomania, vol. 18 no. 3, p. 88, archived from the original (PDF) on 2010-10-11
  6. ^
  7. ^ P. Modiano, Un pedigree, p. 34, Gallimard, Paris, 2005, ISBN 2-07-077333-7.
  8. ^ "Hunter S. Thompson Quotes (Author of Fear and Loathing in las Vegas)".

Further readingEdit