The Birth of Naloxone: An Intellectual History of an Ambivalent Opioid

Laura Kolbe, Joseph J. Fins

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Naloxone, which reverses the effects of opioids, was synthesized in 1960, though the hunt for opioid antagonists began a half-century earlier. The history of this quest reveals how cultural and medical attitudes toward opioids have been marked by a polarization of discourse that belies a keen ambivalence. From 1915 to 1960, researchers were stymied in seeking a pure antidote to opioids, discovering instead numerous opioid molecules of mixed or paradoxical properties. At the same time, the quest for a dominant explanatory and therapeutic model for addiction was likewise unsettled. After naloxone's discovery, new dichotomizing language arose in the War on Drugs, in increasingly divergent views between addiction medicine and palliative care, and in public debates about layperson naloxone access. Naloxone, one of the emblematic drugs of our time, highlights the ambivalence latent in public and biomedical discussions of opioids as agents of risk and relief.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)637-650
Number of pages14
JournalCambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics
Issue number4
StatePublished - Oct 1 2021


  • FDA
  • War on Drugs
  • addiction
  • history of medicine
  • medical research
  • naloxone
  • neuroethics
  • opioids
  • palliative care

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Issues, ethics and legal aspects
  • Health Policy


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