MHRC Discussion Group: Douglas Small, ‘Cocaine, Edward Weston, and Victorian Sports Doping’, Glasgow

Location: Room 216, the Hetherington Building

Date: 1-2pm, Wednesday 18 October

The MHRC is delighted to announce the next discussion group topic. At our next meeting, Dr Douglas Small (Wellcome Trust Research Fellow in Literature and Medicine, University of Glasgow), will present  his work on ‘Cocaine, Edward Weston, and Victorian Sports Doping’. Drinks and snacks will be provided, and all are welcome!


Recent sporting scandals like those involving Justin Gatlin and Lance Armstrong have ensured that the issue of sports doping is seemingly never far from the public eye. Revelations of drug-use in professional sport are typically met with anger and condemnation. Discussions of performance-enhancing drugs tend to be suffused with a rhetoric of criminality and disease: doping as a “cancer” within sport is a common image.

This was far from the case in 1876, however, when the famous long-distance walker Edward Weston was revealed to have chewed coca leaves (the source of cocaine) throughout a 24-hour endurance race at London’s Agricultural Hall. Instead of anger, the Victorian public reacted with enthusiastic interest. The Glasgow Herald wrote that coca was “very interesting” and likely to have many “popular applications.” The Telegraph enthused that “the coca leaf is a plant to which scientific men cannot too soon turn their attention.”  This paper considers why Victorian commentators were so willing to accept performance-enhancing drugs as a beneficial (even necessary) aids to sporting achievement, and the implications of this for constructions of athletic ‘performance’ more broadly.

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