“An Army of Reformed Drunkards and Clergymen”: The Medicalization of Habitual Drunkenness, 1857–1910

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Abstract

Historians have recognized that men with drinking problems were not simply the passive subjects of medical reform and urban social control in Gilded Age and Progressive Era America but also actively shaped the partial medicalization of habitual drunkenness. The role played by evangelical religion in constituting their agency and in the historical process of medicalization has not been adequately explored, however. A post-Civil War evangelical reform culture supported institutions that treated inebriates along voluntary, religious lines and lionized former drunkards who publicly promoted a spiritual cure for habitual drunkenness. This article documents the historical development and characteristic practices of this reform culture, the voluntarist treatment institutions associated with it, and the hostile reaction that developed among medical reformers who sought to treat intemperance as a disease called inebriety. Those physicians' attempts to promote therapeutic coercion for inebriates as medical orthodoxy and to deprive voluntarist institutions of public recognition failed, as did their efforts to characterize reformed drunkards who endorsed voluntary cures as suffering from delusions arising from their disease. Instead, evangelical traditions continued to empower reformed drunkards to publicize their own views on their malady which laid the groundwork for continued public interest in alcoholics' personal narratives in the twentieth century. Meanwhile, institutions that accommodated inebriates' voluntarist preferences proliferated after 1890, marginalizing the medical inebriety movement and its coercive therapeutics.

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