Transdermal Opioid Patches for Pain Treatment in Ancient Greece


Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Adrian Harrison, DPhil (Cantab), IBHV, Faculty of Health Sciences, Copenhagen University, Groennegaardsvej 7, 1870 Frederiksberg C, Denmark. E-mail:


Abstract:  Pain treatment in ancient Greece, and through the middle ages in Europe, was to a great extent based on the expertise of the Greek physician Galen (c. 129–200 A.D.). Galen makes particular reference to “Olympic Victor’s Dark Ointment” (OVDO), which is listed with a number of collyria. Galen states that OVDO can be useful for treating extreme pain and swellings, forming one of the best eye salves.

Olympic Victor’s Dark Ointment, an opium-based treatment, forms a “patch” when applied externally as an ointment, because it quickly dries to cover a localized region but still retains its elastic properties.

This study has recreated OVDO and applied the ointment to abdominal mouse skin, in vitro. To assess the efficacy of OVDO, the transdermal transfer of morphine was measured when given as OVDO and compared to morphine administered in the form of a solution of Opium + PBS (ringer).

Olympic Victor’s Dark Ointment showed a transdermal transfer of morphine over time comparable to 25% of the most efficient modern transdermal opioid patches, while hardly any morphine was able to penetrate the skin when applied mixed in PBS.

We conclude that OVDO is very efficient in its composition and may carry some forgotten abilities in terms of drug delivery, which could be transferred to modern medicine. Indeed, this may lead to a better choice of morphine use and controlled management in individual patient cases, taking both pain relief and anti-inflammatory aspects into account.