Who Bought Whom? Revisiting “Bowman’s Compromise”

As I reported in my 1991 dissertation,(1) the fledgling Research Council on Problems of Alcohol voted to narrow its future scientific attentions to studies of alcoholism only in the autumn of 1939.  Future Council research on other alcohol-related topics, including possible new studies of alcohol’s effects on the human organism or society, would henceforth be substantially de-emphasized or postponed.(2)  Karl M. Bowman, chairman of the Council’s Executive Committee, suggested this shift of research focus in a September 7, 1939 letter to the Council’s Scientific Committee.   Members were also sent a two-page report vigorously advocating the newly proposed policy, prepared by a Special Committee on Financial Policy.

Ray Lyman Wilbur, Feb. 10, 1930

I found these two documents – Bowman’s letter and the financial committee’s two-page report — in boxes of Ray Lyman Wilbur’s archived files on the Research Council of Problems of Alcohol at Stanford University’s Lane Medical Library in (if memory serves) October, 1990, as I was researching my dissertation.  It was a very lucky find.  My dissertation’s burning question was:  How had the nation’s new focus on the problem of alcoholism (and the subsequent development of the modern alcoholism movement) emerged from the ashes of national prohibition in the early post-Repeal period?  Both Mark Keller’s and Bruce Holley Johnson’s previous accounts of this early period had highlighted the important role of the Research Council on Problems of Alcohol.(3)  Yet neither author had addressed the question of why the Council’s large and prestigious body of American scientists took so keen an interest in alcoholism.  I was rummaging through Ray Lyman Wilbur’s old Council files trying to shed light on the matter. 

And then — as I thumbed through stacks of Wilbur’s old correspondence — Bowman’s letter and the financial committee’s report suddenly appeared before my eyes.  With respect to my dissertation research project, these documents were truly a godsend.  Here, out of the blue, was not only solid documentary evidence that the Council made a deliberate decision to embrace alcoholism as its top research priority in the autumn of 1939 but here also was an adumbration of the reasons the Council leadership offered to the membership for the change, and a discussion of the pros and cons of the move as Council leadership envisioned them at the time.  Though it happened twenty years ago, I still can recall the surprise, the excitement, and even the relief I felt at unearthing these documents.  It felt as though I’d found the magic key to unlocking the Council’s turn toward alcoholism.  In order to lend the find a little more gravity I gave the Council’s decision a name, “Bowman’s Compromise.”(4)

What story did these two documents tell?  There is no question that the Council’s change of policy was motivated by financial considerations.  The cash-strapped Council was searching for a legitimate way to accept offers of support from the beverage industry.  Bowman’s letter tied the issue of accepting industry support to questions of bias, real and perceived, in relation to the Council’s future research projects and findings.  Bowman’s letter elaborated this bias problem by means of an example – namely, research on liver cirrhosis.  The Council’s research on alcohol’s relation to liver cirrhosis, he argued, might find that “cirrhosis was not a primary effect of the intake of alcohol.”  “What credence would be given to this finding…,” Bowman continued, “if the rumor were circulated that the investigation was conducted in the interests of the liquor business?”

Research devoted to the subject of alcoholism, on the other hand, seemed not to raise this vexing concern.  Actual or suspected scientific bias did not so easily attach itself to one or another research finding about the causes or treatment of alcoholism.  Alcoholism-focused research addressed the psychological and physiological defects of defective drinkers.  In due course, alcoholism movement protagonists would become fond of saying that alcohol was no more responsible for alcoholism than was sugar for diabetes.  “If there is any likelihood at all,” the financial committee’s two-page report suggested,

that the results of studies in the field of alcoholism will be favorable to any special interest, it will probably be, in the beginning at least, the dry side.  In later years such progress as may be made in the reduction of alcoholism might possibly help the liquor industry, as well as promote the public health.

Karl Bowman (date unknown)

In the moral lenses of most of the Council’s scientist members in the autumn of 1939 the argument that confining their group’s research to the subject of alcoholism offered a legitimate basis for abandoning the Council’s past reluctance to accept support from the beverage industry.  Research focused on alcoholism, no matter what results their research generated, did not harbor the same potent implication of potential bias as research on alcohol’s effects on human beings or society.  The door to industry support, as the Council’s scientists saw it, inched open.

From time to time in recent years I’ve come across one or another author who asserts, suggests, or mildly alludes to the Council’s change of research direction in 1939 as an instance of beverage industry cooptation or buying-off of the Council’s scientists.  In redirecting the Council’s research toward alcoholism, and away from alcohol, this argument goes, the industry sought to locate blame for problems associated with alcohol “in the man” and not “in the bottle.”

The boldest and most elaborated expression of this contention was put forth in Martin Nicolaus’s recent book, Empowering Your Sober Self, published in 2009.(5)  Nicolaus is the founder and CEO of LifeRing Secular Recovery, an alternative self- and mutual-help approach to overcoming alcoholism and drug addiction.  He contends, in part, that the Research Council on Problems of Alcohol in 1939 accepted a beverage industry grant and that “[a] condition of the grant was that…[the Council’s]…research in the next period would switch from alcohol to ‘the disease of alcoholism (inebriety) and the alcoholic psychoses (alcoholic insanity)’” (emphasis added).(6)  Nicolaus cited my dissertation in relation to the quotation at the end of his assertion.  Yet my dissertation may also be read by some readers as authority for his assertion that the Council’s switch to an alcoholism focus was a quid pro quo exacted by the industry as a condition of their would-be grant.  It bears noting, however, that my dissertation research uncovered no evidence that the industry initiated or imposed the alcoholism focus on the Council, whether as a condition for an initial grant or otherwise.  Everything in the documentation I unearthed pointed to the Council members themselves–and particularly Bowman–as the crafters and initiators of the policy change.

There are good reasons to doubt Nicolaus’s cooptation conjecture.  First, there were no arguments or assertions in Bowman’s letter or the financial committee’s report touching on the new alcoholism focus’s problem-in-the-man-and-not-in-the-bottle formulation and implication.  Neither was an important corollary of this formulation mentioned–namely, the formulation’s long-term utility or value to the beverage industry in promoting the domestication of normative or non-alcoholic drinking in the post-Repeal era.  Neither were there assertions conveying any contact with industry spokesmen or with industry wishes–that is, beyond the implied level of contact necessary to communicate the industry’s willingness to contribute funds to the Council.(7)  If the industry lay behind Bowman’s Compromise, then Bowman and the financial committee would have had to deliberately deceive the Council’s scientific membership and other interested parties with the arguments offered in Bowman’s letter and the financial committee’s report.

Bowman’s letter also conveyed that a number of key players had already approved the policy change – including F.R. Moulton, permanent secretary of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; James R. Angell, ex-president of Yale; and the executive officers of all three of the foundations that had already made grant awards to the Council.  It follows that the web of deception Council leadership would have had to spin might have had to encompass persons and institutions Bowman and the financial committee would have been ill-advised and ill-disposed to mislead.  Such deception is not outside the realm of possibility, of course, but it is improbable in my view.

Furthermore, the reasons offered for the shift of focus in Bowman’s letter and the report were framed entirely from the viewpoint of the Council and made no reference to any other institutions’ interests.  The reasons offered, moreover, were adequate in themselves to account for the Council’s decision.  Bowman’s letter argued that there were few potential funding sources in the post-Repeal context that had not taken sides in the great struggle over Repeal.  Nearly everybody in the Council’s potential-sources-of-funding hinterland, in other words, was already biased or prejudiced in one way or the other regarding alcohol-related issues.  “Foundations presumably are not biased;” Bowman conceded,

they are our best source of aid.  Scientists may not be biased; but they have no money.  When we go to other individuals, there appear to be no neutrals.  Every man appears to be either “dry” or “wet” to a greater or less degree.  A sensible and sound view, it is suggested, would provide for the acceptance of funds, for our work on alcoholism, from individuals and organizations representing various and different points of view.

In short, the Council’s funding hinterland was crowded with Hatfields and McCoys, and few neutral parties.  A viable organization that depended on patronage support was going to have to figure out a way to accept funding from both camps.

The financial committee’s report cautioned against allowing dry sources of funding to become the Council’s predominant source of support.  “Last autumn,” the report warned,

representatives of the liquor press showed persistent curiosity as to the source of the Council’s funds.  The Council cannot indefinitely withhold a statement of contributions.  If such a statement were released today, it would necessarily indicate that the Council has accepted dry money, but no money from those connected with the liquor industry.

This argument turned the Council’s past unwillingness to accept industry funding into a bias-associated liability.  (This argument contrasts interestingly and sharply, of course, with today’s negative valance on industry funding among many government supported members of the alcohol science collegium.)(8)

Nicolaus’s contention may also have attributed more sociological savvy, prescience, and consensus to distilling industry leadership than was warranted in 1939 in relation to the problem-in-the-man-and-not-in-the-bottle formulation.  Jay L. Rubin delved into the question of the distilling industry’s early attitude toward “the alcoholism treatment movement” in his 1979 article.(9)  According to Rubin’s account, the industry moved from an early position of hostility to the alcoholism movement (“…based in part on the fear that alcoholism treatment specialists were ‘closet drys’…”) to, in time, a more favorable disposition.  Industry leadership, wrote Rubin, “commissioned two private studies of the alcoholism treatment movement.”(10)  Both studies ultimately encouraged distillers to embrace the new movement, despite some reservations.(11)  Both studies were completed in 1947 – some eight years after Bowman’s Compromise in 1939.

Let me summarize.  What I am arguing is:  (1) I’m aware of no evidence that industry representatives took the lead in suggesting or requiring that Council scientists devote their attentions to alcoholism as a condition of industry funding in the Council’s fateful 1939 decision.  (2) The documentary evidence I found regarding the Council’s reasons for making the shift toward alcoholism appears to be adequate to explain their policy change.  (3) The year 1939 may be too early for industry leaders to have come to a collective appreciation of the advantages of the problem-in-the-man-and-not-the-bottle formulation’s implications in an alcoholism-only research focus.(12)  (4) Finally, I suggest that the assertion that industry co-opted the fledgling alcohol science group into the alcoholism research focus, if it is to be given any credibility, must be equipped with adequate supporting sources and documentation.

There is another level at which I take exception to the cooptation conjecture.  Making that conjecture in effect tends to deprive the actors on the ground in 1939 of their historical situation, their moral framing of the issues they faced, and their voices.  Absent tangible historical evidence, asserting the cooptation conjecture is arguably an exercise in presentism – i.e., the projection of aspects of today’s lively controversy over industry funding of alcohol research back across seven decades and into the 1939 alcohol research scene.  There can be little argument that there are marked differences in alcohol science’s social environments in the two periods.  The fledgling Council had to find a way to survive in a cultural context still chiefly defined by vying dry and wet camps.  What made sense to Council scientists in 1939 should be understood in their own terms.


(1) The American Discovery of Alcoholism, 1933-1939, Ph.D. dissertation, Sociology,University ofCalifornia,Berkeley, 1991.

(2) There was a glaring exception to Bowman’s proposed new policy already in progress – namely, the Council’s Carnegie Corporation-funded, $25,000 grant to review the literature on “alcohol’s effects on man.”  That project won final approval from Carnegie in May, 1939 and work continued on it unimpeded despite the Council’s ratification of Bowman’s Compromise – see The American Discovery of Alcoholism, ch. 8.

(3) Mark Keller penned a number of accounts of the emergence of a “new scientific approach” to alcohol-related questions in the 1930s and 1940s – see, e.g., his “The Origins of Modern Research and Responses Relevant to Problems of Alcohol: A Brief History of the First Center of Alcohol Studies,” pp. 157-170 in Koslowski, L.T. et al. (eds.), Research Advances in Alcohol and Drug Problems, vol. 10, New York: Plenum, 1990 and Mark Keller’s History of the Alcohol Problems Field,” The Drinking and Drug Practices Surveyor 14:22-28, 1979; Bruce Holley Johnson, The Alcoholism Movement in America: A Study in Cultural Innovation, Ph.D. dissertation, Sociology,University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1973.

(4) See The American Discovery of Alcoholism, ch. 8.

(5) Martin Nicolaus, Empowering Your Sober Self: The LifeRing Approach to Addiction Recovery,San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, A Wiley Imprint, 2009 – see pp. 134-135 for Nicolaus’s discussion of his cooptation contention.

(6) The quoted phrase in Nicolaus’s assertion – i.e., ‘the disease of alcoholism (inebriety) and the alcoholic psychoses (alcoholic insanity)’ – derives from a third Council document titled simply, “Announcement,” which was distributed by Bowman to the Council’s full membership as an attachment to a letter dated September 7, 1939.  Curiously, this third document presents the Council’s shift of attention to alcoholism only as an already accomplished decision.  Yet, the financial committee’s report, which was distributed as an attachment to a letter from Bowman to the Council’s Scientific Committee, also dated September 7, 1939, included a ratification plan for the decision.  The new research direction, the financial committee’s report held, would have to be approved by “[at] least 80 per cent of the 40 members of the Scientific Committee’ and 80 percent or more of those present at the upcoming annual meeting of the Council as well as the three executive officers of the foundations that had already awarded grant funds to the Council.  A letter to Wilbur from Winfred Overholser, newly elected chair of the Executive Committee, dated October 20, 1939, informed Wilbur that the new policy had been adopted by the Scientific Committee.  Thirty-seven of the committee’s 39 members had voted, 31 approving, 3 opposed, and 3 “in doubt.”  Overholser did not report on a vote of attendees at the Council’s annual meeting, if any were taken.

(7) There is however an interesting ambiguity left hanging in the first paragraph of the financial committee’s two-page report.  That paragraph reads:

This report is based on various conferences held during the summer, in which committee members and certain competent advisors participated.  The committee suggests that the Council, in determining its future policy, take into account the following aspects of the present situation:

The main body of the report commences after this paragraph.  Who were the “certain competent advisors” the financial committee consulted during the summer?  The Council retained the services of the public relations firm of Pierce and Hedrick (see The American Discovery of Alcoholism, ch. 7) in May of 1938.  It seems likely the Council’s financial committee might have consulted with this firm on the issue at hand in the summer of 1939 if the Council’s working arrangement with Pierce and Hedrick was still in effect at that time.  Bowman’s letter makes mention of contacts and approval of the new research policy already obtained from F.R. Moulton, James R. Angell, James D. Thacher, and the heads of the three foundations that had previously awarded grant funds to the Council.  The financial committee’s two-page report also notes a contact with George Gallup, who apparently advised the committee that they were too preoccupied with potential criticism that might be visited on the Council if industry funding were accepted.  Any or all of these contacts may have been those alluded to in the report’s first paragraph.  Industry contacts may also have been made, of course, although such a contact, if indeed such a contact happened, would not by itself indicate that a quid pro quo was transacted between the industry and the Council.

(8) On the current climate of opinion respecting industry funding of alcohol research, see Kaye M. Fillmore and Ron Roizen, “The new manichaeism in alcohol science, a commentary on McCreanor et al.’s “ICAP and the perils of partnership,” Addiction 95:188-190, 2000.

(9) Jay L. Rubin, “Shifting perspectives on the alcoholism treatment movement, 1940-1955,” Journal of Studies on Alcohol 40:376-386, 1979.

(10) The two studies are identified in Rubin’s article as follows:  (a) R.A. Durrell, A Survey of the Yale Plan of Alcohol Studies together with recommendations for the adoption of a public relations plan concerning alcoholism, 1947; located in the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS) library; and (b) William Cherin Associates, Confidential report on [the] [sic] problem drinking, also located in the DISCUS library.

(11) Rubin reported concerning the Willaim Cherin Associates’ report (Rubin, p. 384):

Their report warned that scientist-supported groups were rapidly gaining influence.  “[They] will be listened to…whether the industry, or the Drys like it, support their efforts, work with them, or not.” Industry leaders were cautioned against trying to dominate the movement as “this will ruin their effectiveness.”  Short of taking over the groups, distillers were urged to seek certain changes, such as the elimination of the words “alcoholic” and “alcoholism.”  Why point to the bottle when men are the source of the problem, the report argued?  Cherin offered the terms “problem drinker” and “chronic drinker” as substitutes.

(12)  This awareness was in evidence by 1947.  John C. Burnham (Bad Habits: Drinking, Smoking, Taking Drugs, Gambling, Sexual Misbehavior, and Swearing in American History, New York and London: New York University Press, 1993, p. 83) quotes Licensed Beverage Industries, Inc. president Thomas F. McCarthy in 1947 as follows:

the root of the ‘problem drinker’s disease’ lies in the man and not in the bottle.  The problem drinker is a medical problem–and he won’t be cured until the scientists and doctors figure out a way (emphasis in original).