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Clive Owen Stars in Cocaine-Fueled Hospital Drama

After opening its doors in 1913, New York’s Knickerbocker Hospital claimed to be at the forefront of medical and surgical advancements. In reality, however, patients going under the knife during this time were almost certainly doomed. With no antibiotics, steady electricity, or true concept of human anatomy, practicing surgeons usually killed more patients than they saved.

It’s that dark side of Victorian-era medicine – combined with a raging cocaine addiction – that director Steven Soderbergh hopes to capture in his new drama, The Knick, which premieres this Friday, August 8 on Cinemax.

Introducing Doctor Thackery

Clive Owen plays Dr. John Thackery, the head surgeon at the Knickerbocker Hospital. Back in the 1900s, medical surgeons were considered rock stars. And that kind of fame can lead to an inflated ego. Owen’s character perfectly displays this flawed sense of self-absorption and debauchery.

Dr. Thackery is the quintessential ego-maniac. He takes the Hippocratic Oath and tosses it out the window, breaking all the rules doctors are expected to abide by and indulging a nasty cocaine addiction. In an attempt to disguise his drug binging ways, Thackery claims his use of the stimulant drug is purely for “research” purposes.

In the opening scenes, viewers see nurse Lucy Elkins, who discovers Dr. Thackery lying in bed, shaking and sweating from severe cocaine withdrawals. To ease his pain, Elkins injects the ailing Thackery with a shot of cocaine.

“I tried to go the night without it,” he explains. “That won’t happen again.”

Cocaine’s Medical History

Though cocaine use in a hospital may seem crazy by today’s medical standards, it’s critical to remember the context of medicine as The Knick begins. It was a time when scientists were first discovering that cocaine had valuable anesthetic and vasoconstricting properties. For example, in 1884, the drug was used to perform eye surgery, numbing the eye and restricting bleeding. In 1887, the US Surgeon General even recommended that cocaine be used to treat depression, claiming that there was no such thing as cocaine addiction.

As cocaine became a popular medication in its own right, pharmaceutical companies quickly jumped on the band wagon.

Cocaine medication examples included:

  • Cocaine Toothache Drops (instantaneous cure)
  • Metcalf’s Coca Wine (cures fatigue of mind or body)
  • Cocaine-Containing Throat Lozenges (sold as “indispensable for singers, teachers, and orators”)

Cocaine was considered legal and medically therapeutic until 1914, when the stimulant drug found itself on a list of substances that were placed under federal control, known as the Harrison Narcotics Act.

Modern Addiction and Medical Professionals

A high number of today’s medical professionals suffer from drug addiction, particularly to prescription opiates and sedatives. Addiction is especially prevalent among medical specialists who use or prescribe addictive substances during the course of daily practice (i.e. pain management or anesthesiology). Considering the fact that many of these medications are among the most powerful drugs available, substance abuse in the medical field represents a monumentally dangerous – and growing – problem.

Related: Q&A: A Surgeon’s Secret Drug Addiction

More Addicted TV Doctors

Addicted physicians often offer a popular storyline for television viewers. A few of those memorable personalities include:

  • House: Doctor Gregory House is likely the most popular drug addicted physician on television. Thanks to a former injury, Dr. House became addicted to Vicodin. With a bottle of pills tucked safely inside his jacket’s breast pocket, House roamed the hospital popping pills like Tic-Tacs and begrudgingly saving patients.
  • Nip/Tuck: The decidedly debotcherous plastic surgery drama featured Doctor Sean McNamara. Later in the show’s run, Dr. McNamara spends his time worrying about everything and soothing his nerves by popping Oxycontin.

Viewers can catch the premier episode of The Knick by tuning in to Cinemax on August 8 at 10 p.m. Audiences will follow Clive Owen’s coke-fueled Dr. Thackery through 10 episodes, with a second season already in the works.