Back to the Future: Addiction and the Scientific Method

Editor’s Note: Happy Valentine’s Day! Today’s post on a recent joint conference between the Alcohol and Drugs History Society (ADHS) and the Society for the Study of Addiction comes courtesy of ADHS president Virginia Berridge.

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Society for the Study of Addiction conference joint with the Alcohol and Drugs History Society York England, November 2016

The Society for the Study of Addiction is one of the oldest international societies in the substance use field. It began as the Society for the Study and Cure of Inebriety in the 1880s. It publishes the high impact journal Addiction (known to historians under its historic name of the British Journal of Inebriety).

Through its committee member Dr Iain Smith, psychiatrist and also member of ADHS, the Society extended an invitation to Society members to submit papers and posters to its annual conference in York England. It also issued invitations to several leading scholars in the history field to give plenary lectures. Tim Hickman from Lancaster University shared the opening platform with Professor David Nutt a leading psychopharmacologist and exponent of brain science approaches. Tim’s comparison of Alan Leshner’s promotion of addiction as a ‘chronic relapsing brain disorder’ with that promoted in the 1880s by Dr Leslie E Keeley was all the more apposite. He pointed out that physicians of the day and even the SSA’s precursor , the Society for the Study of Inebriety, had dismissed such ideas as ‘quackery’ .Keeley was opposed by new forms of medical power.

The Society’s annual lecture was given by Wayne Hall from Australia. As a former member of the International Narcotics Control Board and also an honorary professor attached to the History Centre at LSHTM, Wayne was well positioned to bring an historical perspective to his topic ,of the future of the international drug control treaties. Other plenary lectures were given by ADHS members Erica Dyck from Canada and Gemma Blok from the Netherlands. Erica’s lecture on historical insights into the current psychedelic renaissance stressed that enthusiasts for a scientific renaissance could learn from what had happened to LSD and its related components first time round. Gemma Blok’s research on Narcotics Anonymous in the Netherlands from the 1980s through oral histories had shown the difficult balance between an acceptance of chronic drug use and therapeutic optimism.

A parallel session brought 4 selected history papers to the audience and was well attended. Jose Cree from Sheffield had analysed the corpus of Early English Books Online to track the uses of the word’ addiction’ which she found related to behaviours rather than to substances and with positive as well as negative associations. Thora Hands from Strathclyde University used case studies of 3 alcohol companies- producing respectively beer, whiskey and wine and spirits –with alcohol marketing as her focus in late Victorian Britain. Janet Weston of LSHTM compared the HIV and drugs issue in English and Irish prison systems. And Christine Goodair of St Georges London, introduced the SALIS database which was providing access to vital material once feared lost as substance libraries were closed down.

Iain Smith’s overview of addiction history closed our history input. Everyone thought the conference had worked well as a means of bringing historical insights into the current discussions.The critical mass of historians present made a difference: SSA delegates had an introduction to the range of historical work possible and different research approaches. An historian, Dr.Ved Baruah of the University of Strathclyde, even won the conference best poster prize!

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