In the early 1900s, two scientists theorized that addicts built up antibodies to alcohol when drinking heavily. Emboldened no doubt by the advent of vaccines in various other areas of medicine—Louis Pasteur had invented them 30 years earlier and they were the subject of intense medical study—they created “a vaccine for alcoholism.” They did this by administering alcohol to horses until they became dependent on it, and then injecting their blood into other horses. The scientists’ reports claimed that, after being vaccinated, the second batch of horses would not drink alcohol. This led a San Francisco-based company to attempt to isolate antibodies from the horse blood and apply them to the cut skin of addicts to vaccinate them against further alcoholism. The treatment was ineffective.
Creating an aversion to a substance is an effective technique for combating addiction that's still used today—drugs like Antabuse cause an unpleasant physical reaction when alcohol is consumed, for instance. Turn of the century doctors had a similar idea, but quite a few carried it out in weird ways. Some doctors asked patients to imbibe their favorite drink, often slowly, in a room full of mirrors to focus the attention on the beverage. They then induced vomiting with emetics or administered electric shocks. Several, however, went so far as to advocate adding rotted sea grapes, mole blood, sparrow dung, powdered pork or even a live eel to an alcoholic’s drink of choice.
This famous treatment, "discovered" by demagogue and Civil War surgeon Leslie Keeley in 1879, involved daily injections and oral medication, as well as a 31-day stay in a treatment center that emphasized healthy food, exercise and fresh air. While the treatment center stay was reasonable enough, the injections and “tonics” were extremely dangerous. Keeley alleged that his treatment was made of “double chloride of gold”—but it was reported by various sources to actually contain coca, morphine, strychnine, arsenic or an extract of the deadly nightshade plant, as well as other, slightly less deadly but still-powerful medicines. Keeley claimed a 95% cure rate on this treatment. That figure was challenged by the medical and scientific establishment when former patients and their families began to report side effects ranging from insanity to relapse to death.
One popular theory of alcoholism a hundred years or so ago was that drinking to excess—along with other mental or social problems, such as "retardation," prostitution and criminal behavior—was not only passed down from generation to generation, but actually got worse with each transmission. The theory drove many politicians to propose legislation to prevent alcoholics from having children and “save the next generation,” through sterilization or forbidding marriage. By 1922, 15 US states had passed such laws, and even states with voluntary sterilization laws often pressured institutionalized alcoholics—particularly women—to undergo the procedure.
There was a period in the late 1800s when morphine—often in the form of laudanum—was popular as a treatment for everything from coughing to laziness. There were even preparations of the drug intended for babies. So it’s hardly surprising that many doctors tried it as an alcoholism treatment. Some, like Dr. J.R. Black, took it even further, suggesting that alcoholics were incurable and that doctors might as well try to transfer their dependence to morphine—which he believed was a less socially, physically and fiscally damaging addiction. He also thought it was less likely to be passed on to the next generation and would make addicts less boisterous and profane.
Another incorrect theory—that alcoholism was driven by dysfunction in the endocrine system—gave rise to a therapy that would have pleased the characters in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. In the 1940s and ’50s, doctors believed that injecting addicts with adrenocorticotropic hormones or other extracts of the adrenal gland would help stabilize the endocrine system, ending the craving for alcohol. Initial reports actually indicated that the hormones might have helped speed detoxification—but the therapy was still discontinued.
Light boxes are still used today as a treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder (also called Winter Depression). In the early 1900s, however, they were used—along with hot air boxes—as a treatment for alcoholism. Doctors believed they helped simulate equatorial weather conditions, which at the time were thought to reduce the incidence of alcohol addiction. The boxes might have helped cases of alcoholism that were caused or exacerbated by cases of Seasonal Affective Disorder; in general, however, their effectiveness is unknown.
By the 1950s, treatment of addicts had generally fallen into the hands of prisons and asylums for the insane, which—as any horror movie aficionado knows—were hotbeds of medical experimentation. The Colorado State Penitentiary developed a cure for addiction to narcotics that would fit right into one of those movies: to treat addicts in the prison population, doctors would create blisters on the addict’s stomach, remove fluid from the blisters with a hypodermic needle, and then re-inject that fluid into the addict’s arm. This was repeated four to five times per day for just under a week.
Yet another "therapy" that was driven by the move to treat addiction in mental hospitals, frontal lobotomy was used as a method of treatment for narcotics addiction primarily between 1948 and 1952—right around the time it became popular for other psychiatric problems. The numbers were low—just nine cases were reported in scientific papers during those years—and there was very little evidence that the procedure helped alleviate withdrawal or drug cravings as intended.
In the 1950s, when psychedelics were becoming a popular entertainment choice for counterculture types, quite a few psychologists wondered if they might have medical uses too. Doctors investigated hallucinogens like LSD and psilocybin (magic mushrooms) as treatments for everything from schizophrenia to cancer anxiety, but alcoholism was frequently considered a promising avenue of research. Maybe they were on to something. A recent meta-analysis of old studies in which LSD was used to treat alcoholism, conducted by scientists at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim, indicated that 59% of those dosed with LSD in experiments from the ’50s and ’60s reported less alcohol abuse afterwards—compared to 38% of subjects who received a placebo. This is one addiction treatment of the past that might just have a future.
Former neuroscientist Jacqueline Detwiler edits a travel magazine by day, but moonlights as a science writer. Her work has appeared in Wired, Men's Health, Fitness and Forbes. She's also written about the hardest drugs to kick and drugs and personality types for The Fix.
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