Bizarre Addiction Treatments of The Past

Bizarre Addiction Treatments

Efforts by professionals to “treat” alcoholism and other addictions have a long and colorful history. Alcoholics have been forced to drink their own urine and forced to drink wine in which an eel had been suffocated. They have been surreptitiously dosed with everything from mole blood to sparrow dung and subjected to the “Swedish treatment” in which everything they consumed and even their clothes and bedding were saturated with whiskey. They have been prescribed dietary treatments that included the apple, salt, grape, banana, onion, and watermelon cures. They have been fed gold, iron and bark to quell their appetite for alcohol.

Harm done in the name of good is an enduring theme in the history of addiction treatment. Even Dr. Benjamin Rush, the father of the American disease concept of alcoholism, treated alcoholics by blistering, bleeding, and unknowingly poisoning them with mercury-laden medicines. In the 19th century, alcoholics and addicts were routinely prescribed alcohol, narcotics, marijuana, sedatives, stimulants, and hallucinogens. Dr. J.B. Bently prescribed cocaine by the pound as a treatment for alcohol and morphine addiction and reported, as a testament to the cocaine’s effectiveness, that his patients were requesting additional quantities of cocaine and that they had completely lost their appetite for alcohol and morphine. There were Abromide sleep treatments for narcotic withdrawal that killed 20% of patients undergoing the procedure. There was the physician who, noting that alcohol intake decreased among his patients suffering active stages of gonorrhea, recommended medically infecting alcoholics with gonorrhea as a way to save the expense of sanatorium treatment.

Through the first half of the 20th century alcoholics and addicts were subjected to legally mandated sterilization on the grounds that it would prevent the birth of future generations of alcoholics and could treat the underlying physical causes of alcoholism. There were early 20th century Aserum therapies that involved raising blisters on the addict’s skin, withdrawing the serum from the blisters, and then injecting this serum into the addict during withdrawal. There were also withdrawal therapies in the 1930s utilizing substances that could induce psychoses of up to two months duration. [It seems, sometimes, the cures were worse than the illness.]

Alcoholics and addicts were indiscriminately exposed to whatever was in vogue within the broader arenas of medicine or psychiatry. The 1940s and 1950s witnessed addiction treatments that included electroconvulsive and insulin shock therapies and the use of psychosurgery (the prefrontal lobotomy). At least one alcoholic commended the latter, reporting that, following the surgery, he could get “twice as tight on half the hooch.” The 1950s also witnessed the use of methamphetamine as a medically prescribed substitute for alcohol and heroin—a practice that helped nurture the subsequent growth of a methamphetamine injection subculture.

History demands that those seeking treatment for addiction to alcohol and other drugs honor the adage, “Let the buyer beware” and demand that treatment providers adhere to the ultimate ethical mandate: “First do no harm!”

Early History on The “Disease Concept”

Did you know that the very earliest recorded mutual self-help societies of alcoholics were created by Native Americans? “Our first evidence of individuals turning their own negative experiences with alcohol into a social movement of mutual support occurs within Native American tribes.” That was as early as 1772, and perhaps goes to explain why support groups can evoke the feeling of belonging to a special kind of close-knit tribe.

The concept of alcoholism as a disease, which some people claim is as modern as plastic wrap, was already articulated by Benjamin Rush, the Surgeon General of George Washington’s revolutionary armies, in a pamphlet dated 1784. Rush was also one of the first to prescribe total abstinence from spirits as the sole remedy: “taste not, handle not, touch not.” “A nation corrupted by alcohol can never be free.” He had a very modern multi-factorial view of alcoholism’s causes and he articulated a multiple-pathway model of recovery. Although some of his measures were archaic by current standards — massive doses of medicine and copious bleeding — he was a hugely insightful and modern figure. Drinking in colonial America was an everyday habit, and penurious inebriates were flogged or jailed, never hospitalized. The consensus of religious leaders was that moderate drinking was a gift of God, but drunkenness was a vice and a sin. Fast forward a century. A group of 14 physicians and their supporters met in New York in November 1870 to found the American Association for the Cure of Inebriates, and published a manifesto whose opening sentence was “Intemperance is a disease.”

[Excerpts taken from a great book by William White entitled “Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America”.