Hans Bosman Hans Bosman Sacha Ruland

The Dutch Cocaine Factory in international perspective

In Culture
Written by  Femke Kools Wednesday, 21 November 2012 11:11
The first remarkable thing about Hans Bosman’s PhD thesis is the subject: The History of the Dutch Cocaine Factory and its Successors. Few people are aware of the fact that in 1900 this factory was established to manufacture cocaine, used as a local anaesthetic. The second thing is that the PhD student himself worked in this factory from 1960 as chief chemist. And finally his age: he is 82.  “Doing this research as a PhD project sharpened my focus, but I primarily did it for the intellectual challenge.”

It all started after his retirement. Hans Bosman worked in the narcotic drugs industry for almost all of his life. After his decision to stay in Australia, where he worked from 1977 until his retirement in 1996, he started to think about the history of the industry he had worked in. “I realized that I really didn’t know much about the history of the Dutch Cocaine Factory (NCF).”


In 1884 it was discovered that cocaine was an anaesthetic particularly suited for eye surgery. Involuntary movements of the eye could be stopped, so doctors could operate. In the beginning it was also used as an anaesthetic in dentistry. Today, medical use of cocaine is confined primarily to nose and throat surgery.
In 1900, cocaine was not a controlled substance; manufacture and trade was not restricted. The NCF could sell cocaine freely, including to manufacturers of home remedies. Following a series of international conferences, cocaine and other narcotic drugs became controlled substances after the Geneva Convention of 1925. From 1930 NCF broadened its production programme to include opiates such as morphine and codeine. Cocaine became a minor product of the factory and it still was in 1960 when Hans Bosman applied for the job of chief chemist.

Working at NCF

“I had never heard of the NCF before I saw the advertisement, but the job appealed to me immediately because I wanted to work in the pharmaceutical industry, to apply my knowledge of chemistry, and also because cocaine is a substance not everybody works with.” Hans Bosman was responsible for process control and research; a number of chemists who checked the quality of the raw materials and the final products were reporting to him. Quite soon he became operations manager, managing the whole factory. During his entire career he would be in charge of companies producing narcotic drugs, the last 18 years in Australia.

In retirement he started researching, with the goal to document in detail the history of the NCF and its successors in the context of the international narcotic drugs industry. “I wanted to write a serious work that documented what was known about this subject.”
Having worked in the industry, he also had the impression that some statements occurring in publications on the NCF were incorrect. Take for example the claim that NCF was the world’s largest cocaine manufacturer around 1910. “This seems to be based on a single article in the ‘Pharmaceutisch Weekblad’ (red. Pharmaceutical Weekly) at the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the NCF in 1925. It was stated there that the factory had a leading role as a cocaine manufacturer in the world and this phrase was interpreted somehow that the NCF was the largest manufacturer in 1910. In fact that is still quoted on Wikipedia. Knowing the size of the company and also the size of the German pharmaceutical industry in the beginning of the 20th century, I had my doubts.”


For the period 1900-1930, there were no comprehensive statistics available on the production of cocaine. Hans Bosman developed methods to make fairly accurate estimates of cocaine produced worldwide and in the Netherlands, the latter by analyzing financial figures on the NCF over those three decades. “The cocaine production at NCF was about 500 kilos in 1910, while Merck in German Darmstadt produced ten times as much in that year. Also from the known production capacity of 750 kg per year it is obvious that NCF was not the largest manufacturer.

This is not the only ‘fact’ that Bosman refutes in his thesis. A publication that struck him unpleasantly was a book by Conny Braam, titled ‘De handelsreiziger van de Nederlandsche Cocaïne Fabriek’, (red. The travelling salesman of the Dutch Cocaine Factory). According to Braam the book is based on ‘true facts’, but Bosman would rather call it ‘entirely unfounded slander’. Bosman: “The book describes the experiences of a young salesman who, during World War I, sold cocaine manufactured by the NCF to Germany and the UK, where it was distributed by the respective armies to their soldiers to turn them into ’fighting machines’. She claims, during TV and radio interviews, that as a result many soldiers were killed and that 100,000s of soldiers became cocaine addicts. She mentions that at the time the NCF factory produced 20,000 to 30,000 kilos of cocaine annually. This simply is not true. The factory could not produce more than 1,500 kilos of cocaine per year. Braam paints an entirely untrue and detrimental picture of the NCF whereby the reputation of the company and its employees are groundlessly besmirched.”


Back to the present: will we ever hear from him again in science after his PhD defence on November 8th? “Maybe I will write some articles, but nothing as big as this anymore. I am grateful that Professor Homburg of Maastricht University accepted me as a student. I learned a lot from him; he sharpened my focus and the study became quite a challenge. Only in the last few years did I start to believe that the project would result in a doctorate. The study became a fulltime job, and my wife and I travelled less because I needed to work. And at my age you shouldn’t overdo it, should you?”

Hans Bosman successfully defended his PhD thesis on 8 November 2012.

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