What everyone seems to remember most is how fun and lively she was, the “saloon historian” who made a career out of elevating the importance of the lowly and mundane. Madelon Powers, the vivacious professor and former chair of the history department of the University of New Orleans, passed away in mid-April after a struggle with cancer, but her contributions to both the field of alcohol and drug history, as well as in the lives of her many students, will live on through her writing and a new UNO scholarship founded in her name.
Editor’s Note: This remembrance comes from William White, author of Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America (1998).
Ernest Kurtz, who made landmark contributions to the study of addiction recovery, died January 19, 2015, of pancreatic cancer. Following publication of Not-God: A History of Alcoholics Anonymous in 1979, Kurtz focused his studies on the growing varieties of recovery experience, the healing of shame and guilt, and the role of spirituality in addiction recovery.
Ernest Kurtz was born in Rochester, New York, on September 9, 1935–only two months after the meeting of two desperate alcoholics in Akron, Ohio, marked the birth of Alcoholics Anonymous. Kurtz attended St. Bernard’s Seminary and College and was then ordained as a Catholic Priest in 1961. Following five years of parish work, he began his graduate studies at Harvard University where he completed an M.A. in history and a Ph.D. in the history of American civilization. His Ph.D. dissertation on the history of A.A. marked a turning point in the scholarly study of A.A. and the larger arenas of addiction recovery and recovery mutual aid societies, both legitimizing such studies and setting a benchmark by which future studies would be evaluated.
All serious historians of alcohol and drugs will be saddened to hear of the passing, last week, of Ernest (“Ernie”) Kurtz, the first and foremost historian of Alcoholics Anonymous. Kurtz’s commanding Not-God: a History of Alcoholics Anonymous was published in 1979 by Hazelden. Though Ernie often talked about how AA history in the decades since Not-God appeared had outstripped its claims, and in fact called from the pages of Points for a revised and updated history of AA, his book remains the definitive word on the fellowship’s founding and early growth.
Kurtz wrote Not-God as his dissertation; he earned a Phd in the American Civilization program at Harvard University (a fact that I don’t hold against him, even though I attended a different and really much better American Studies program down the road). The volume’s power arises from his ability to situate its founders and their fledgling organization within the context of American religious and cultural history. Like two other compelling historians of AA, Damien McElrath and Glenn Chesnutt, Kurtz was positioned well to inquire into the program’s spiritual foundations: after earning a BA in philosophy from St. Bernard’s Seminary in Rochester, New York, he entered the priesthood and served as a parish priest from 1961 to 1966. I’ll leave it to better Catholics than myself to sort out whether it was Ernie’s seminary training or his departure from the church in the late 1970s that gave him such penetrating insight into the ways AA manifested what he came to call “the spirituality of imperfection.” Continue reading →
Joseph R. Gusfield, a historical sociologist and leader in transforming the study of alcohol use in the United States, passed away on January 5, 2015, at the age of 91.
His seminal works include Symbolic Crusade: Status Politics and the American Temperance Movement (1963) and The Culture of Public Problems: Drinking-Driving and the Symbolic Order (1981).