Confessions of an Historian of Secrecy, Science, and the Self

Editor’s note: We continue our celebration of the 40th anniversary of the publication of David F. Musto’s book with a contribution from cultural historian and American Studies scholar Timothy A. Hickman, whose first book, The Secret Leprosy of Modern Days, reconstructs (and deconstructs) the entrepreneurial therapeutics of the late 19th century historical world inhabited by Dr. Leslie Keeley, proponent of the famous “Gold Cure” for inebriety. Hickman recounts grappling with Musto’s capacious framework in the context of a post-Foucauldian intellectual moment.

Most historians of drugs and alcohol get used to the question, “So how did you get interested in THAT topic,” usually punctuated by a cocked eyebrow and an arch chuckle. My interest arose during the popular recovery movement of the late 1980s, when I read “As Sick as Our Secrets,” a Summer 1990 LA Weekly article by writer Helen Knode, who detailed her family’s troubles with substance dependence over the years. I was particularly taken by her claim that, if one were to multiply the number of “addicts” by the number of “co-dependents” asserted by recovery writers, the product would exceed the entire US population!

The fonts were just a symptom.

Bad fonts were a symptom.

What fundamental beliefs might underwrite the diagnosis of the entire American population as “dysfunctional”? Whose interests were met in defining a whole population as a target for therapy? What institutions benefited? What did this state of affairs suggest about American society, and why did millions of people ‘Just Say Yes’ to the recovery movement’s call?  Still more pressingly, what kind of a “disease” required confession as the first step to cure?

Continue reading →


Call for Proposals: ADHS @ AHA

The Alcohol and Drugs History Society hope that any members or interested scholars will put together proposals for papers or panels for the next annual meeting of the American Historical Association (AHA). This meeting will be in Washington D.C. from January 2-5, 2014. Panels or papers that are not accepted by the AHA will be considered for inclusion in our own affiliate meetings. The deadline for submitting papers and panels to the AHA is February 15. The complete information on submitting a panel or paper can be found at the following link: Call for Proposals: American Historical Association.

For proposals that are rejected by the AHA or are submitted later than February 15, 2013, please contact W. Scott Haine and Emily Dufton at the following emails: and

Thank you very much for your consideration and best of luck!

The American Disease: Still Learning?

Editor’s Note: This week’s symposium marking the 40th anniversary of David F. Musto’s The American Disease continues today with a reflection by Joe Spillane, managing editor emeritus of Points and Associate Professor of History at the University of Florida. Joe’s discussion illuminates the breadth of a scholar’s engagement with a major work in his field, ranging from deep immersion in the footnotes to meditations on the structure of Musto’s argument in relation to dominant historical ideas of its day.

The first drug history book I owned was David Musto’s The American Disease.  I purchased the second edition (actually the first expanded edition) not long after it appeared in 1987. Musto’s footnotes were for me, as they had been for David Courtwright more than a decade earlier, loaded with clues as to how and where I might further mine the early history of drug control in the United States. I cannot express just how important those notes were–not only were they the only really comprehensive survey of historical source material, they offered comforting reassurance that I was not alone in my particular scholarly interest. Twenty-five years later, that expanded edition (paperback, of course) is still the one on my shelf to which I turn as a first reference; the majority of pages have at least some notation, and the folded corners, post-it notes, and margin comments serve as a record of my one-way conversation with David Musto over many years.

Scrutiny rewarded.

Scrutiny rewarded.

It took a long time for me to stop thinking about The American Disease solely as a reference volume, and come to grips instead with Musto’s argument. At the heart of the volume is a notion that American drug history is marked by series of cycles of tolerance and intolerance for drug use. Those cycles are partly learning cycles–or, more correctly, cycles of learning and forgetting. As I’ve noted before, I had always intended to ask David where his notion of cycles came from. To some extent, it seems drawn fairly directly from mid-century social learning theory. Here, the process of “learning” about the harms of particular drug use tend to fade away, which leads to a forgetting of what had been learned. This forgetting, in turn, produces a new round of consumption, the harms of which produce a new round of learning.

To this relatively straightforward (though highly disputable) social learning model, however, Musto added a layer focused on emotions and fear. In truth, this argument became clearer in the 1987 edition of the work–no doubt because of the remarkable social and political changes Musto observed in the years following the first edition’s appearance. In a 1991 Scientific American article, Musto concluded: “Americans seem to be the least likely of any people to accept the inevitability of historical cycles. Yet if we do not appreciate our history, we may again become captive to the powerful emotions [emphasis mine] that led to draconian penalties, exaggeration, or silence.” Emotions are the key. Musto was arguing that people respond to drug use with powerful emotions that come from equally powerful cultural dispositions, and that these emotions lead us from the objective response to the visceral, sometimes dangerously so, before the objective pulls us back again, and so on. As (again) I have written before, this argument sounds an awful lot like Richard Hofstadter’s mid-century emphasis on the non-rational aspects of populist and progressive movements, or perhaps John Higham’s portrait of the cycles of nativism in 1954’s Strangers in the Land, or even Andrew Sinclair’s 1962 account of Prohibition in America, Prohibition: The Era of Excess (to which Hofstadter contributed the Preface).

The cycles of emotional reaction argument.

The cycles of emotional reaction argument.

Continue reading →

‘The American Disease’ Turns Forty

Editor’s Note: This spring marks 40 years since the first publication of The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control, the groundbreaking book by David F. Musto (1936-2010). In honor of this anniversary, Nancy D. Campbell has organized an online symposium at Points this week on Musto’s book and its impact, featuring leading drug historians. The symposium begins today with a reflection by David T. Courtwright, Presidential Professor of History at the University of North Florida. Courtwright discusses the origins and publishing history of The American Disease, and the role it played in his own career as a drug historian, which has produced such similarly lauded works as Addicts Who Survived: An Oral History of Narcotic Use in America, Dark Paradise: A History of Opiate Addiction in America, and Forces of Habit: Drugs and the Making of the Modern World.

In 1968 Dr. Stanley Yolles, the Director of the National Institute of Mental Health, assigned a young physician named David Musto the task of investigating the history of the narcotic issue. Yolles was particularly interested in the narcotic clinics that briefly flourished in the early 1920s. Musto, then attached to the U.S. Public Health Service, dutifully began reading documents in the National Archives and the Library of Congress. He made two discoveries. The first was that almost no one before him had bothered to use archival sources. The second was that these sources did not line up with either the medical-reformist or police-enforcement versions of the past. “These ‘histories,’” Musto wrote, “appeared to be more in the nature of political party platforms than accurate descriptions of the process of narcotic control in the United States.”

This defect Musto corrected in The American Disease (1973), whose fortieth anniversary falls this year. What his book conveyed was the contingency and complexity of narcotic control. It untangled American drug policy’s serpentine roots, showing how narcotic abuse and addiction, diplomatic maneuvering, muckraking journalism, racial anxieties, pharmaceutical and medical lobbying, and moral entrepreneurship all affected early laws and treaties. Federalism further complicated the story. In the early twentieth century many Americans questioned whether and to what extent the federal government had jurisdiction over drug control. The matter ended up in the Supreme Court, which in 1919 narrowly upheld both the constitutionality of the Harrison Narcotic Act and federal prosecutions of individual physicians who wrote large numbers of prescriptions to maintain addicts’ habits.

Yale University Press ad for the 1973 edition of 'The American Disease'.

Yale University Press ad for the 1973 edition of ‘The American Disease’.

It was the constitutional questions that first led me to the book. In 1975 I was a Rice University graduate student in Harold Hyman’s legal history seminar. I was struggling to understand the ban on addict maintenance, which had only recently and grudgingly retreated before the methadone revolution. My first thought, as I thumbed through The American Disease, was one of disappointment. Someone had already published a big book—with Yale University Press, no less—on my intended subject. Continue reading →

Coca: The Survival of a Drug of the Dispossessed

In the beginning of this year, Bolivia gained the right to re-access the United Nations Single Convention on Narcotic Drugs with a reservation concerning the prohibition of the chewing of coca leaves. This is a small but perhaps not unimportant victory against the global War on Drugs. Especially it means some recognition of the right of indigenous people, the dispossessed of the earth, to their own drug use.

Bolivian woman protests against UN report on coca

Bolivian woman protests against UN report on coca

In my blog of 11 June 2012 I discussed how the knowledge of coca use among the Indians of Spanish America was disseminated by, among others, the buccaneers and pirates of the later seventeenth century. As a collateral result of their plunder voyages on the Spanish Main some of the Brethren of the Coast became key informants on American drugs for the botanists and trading companies of Western Europa. Some of these drugs became export products to the rest of the world, with varying commercial results. Coca, for some reason, didn’t. Was there in Europe in the early modern period no need for a drug that gave a slight stimulation throughout the day? Or did a drug used, not by wild and exotic Indian savages firing the imagination of European armchair adventurers, but used by poor Indian slaves adjusting themselves to Spanish tyranny, fail to have the necessary sexiness to be adopted in the lifestyles of Europeans? Was it just the case that Europeans weren’t used to and didn’t like the method of consumption of coca, chewing the leaves until their teeth turned green? Or was it a matter of too complicated logistics to export the leaves to Europe in a state of some potency? Continue reading →

NEXT WEEK: David Musto, The American Disease: a Symposium

Editor’s Note: This spring marks 40 years since the original publication of David Musto’s groundbreaking 1973 book, The American Disease: Origins of Narcotic Control. In honor of this anniversary, former Points contributing editor NanMusto Yale pub 1973cy D. Campbell has organized an online symposium on Musto’s book and its impact, featuring leading drug historians. The symposium kicks off on Monday, January 28 with a reflection by David Courtwright, followed during the week by posts from Joe Spillane, Caroline Acker, Tim Hickman, and Nancy Campbell. Check in every day for what promises to be an illuminating discussion not only on this seminal work, but on the history of the field.

Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Tobacco in South Korea

FNN 20130109 ktg charcoal yonsei

Yonsei Law School Student at 2012 KT&G Charitable Distribution of Charcoal Photo: FNNews Staff Photographer

In the past, Milton Friedman has argued that companies have minimal ethical and social responsibilities outside of avoiding legal transgressions and satisfying their shareholders, but this position does not seem to have broad public appeal in corporate boardrooms or on main street today.  Definitions of corporate social responsibility (CSR) have not remained static over time, but broadly, it’s founded on an understanding that “business organizations have societal obligations which transcend economic functions” or that there is some “obligation to work for the social betterment” (Epstein 1989, 585; Frederick 1995, 151). In practice, a wide variety of programs and policies can fall under the CSR umbrella, including: scholarships for underprivileged youth, mentoring minority students, donating proceeds for disaster relief, among others. However, see Whitehouse 2006, Carroll 2001, and Wood 1991 for the general academic consensus that there is, well, no consensus on the meaning or implementation of CSR.

Of course, few would suggest that all public displays of corporate social responsibility are disingenuous, but there are ways in which CSR policies and marketing can serve to balance or cloak the ethical exposures of a company. The 2008 greening of BP is one recent visible example. That BP chose a “green” theme that privileged environmental responsibility over many other possible social contributions addressed a significant vulnerability shared by companies in this industry. As we have seen with the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill or the 1989 Exxon Valdez incident, the environmental and human cost of securing energy resources can occasionally be spectacularly tragic and very public.  Continue reading →