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This feature article encapsulates the senior author’s long-standing interests in opiate chemistry and attempts to place it within an historical context and against the backdrop of related work by others who have viewed morphine as one of the pinnacles of natural product synthesis. Biomimetic and ‘bioanalogous’ routes to the morphine skeleton are discussed followed by approaches based on the elaboration of phenanthrene platforms. The latter include an asymmetric synthesis of ent-morphine developed in our laboratory.