It was early 20th century Chicago, and people were offering kids “happy dust.” Police knew that happy dust was cocaine, but they didn’t know how to prove it — until one scientist came up with a extremely unusual way to convince a jury.
The reason the dealers were never convicted is because the most accurate test available could only narrow the”happy dust” down to three possible chemicals: cocaine, alpha-eucaine, and beta-eucaine. The eucaines were cocaine derivatives used as numbing agents by dentists, and giving any to a kid would put you in prison today. At the time, though, it was still legal to stop a random child on the street and offer them medical-grade drugs, provided that the drugs weren’t cocaine. The dealers insisted happy dust was eucaine, and walked.
Not on Alice Hamilton’s watch. Hamilton was a bacteriologist by training, but she knew a thing or two about drugs. People noted that drugs, including cocaine, dilated the eye. Hamilton realized that the eucaines wouldn’t have the same effect. (They did somewhat paralyze the muscles of the eye, but the pupils of people on eucaine still respond to bright light. Cocaine dilates the eye no matter what.) The simple way to test for cocaine was applying the happy dust to the eye of a rabbit, and watching it dilate.
Juries didn’t care for that. Oh, they did realize that cocaine was being sold to school children, but they weren’t going to convict on the word of some vicious bunny drugger. Hamilton was unperturbed. The drugs were numbing agents, and did the rabbits no harm. They would also, she knew, do her no harm in small quantities. So she covered her own eyes in cocaine, and waited until they dilated. Take that, drug dealers!
Top Image: Andrés Nieto Porras.