Saturday, 15 June 2019

Irish Medical Responses to Problem Drinking from Institutionalisation to Public Health: Part I

In the first of this two-part series, Dr Alice Mauger, Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland, UCD, looks at the changing approaches of medical practitioners and psychiatrists to problem drinking in Ireland at the turn of the twentieth century.

After over 1,000 days of debate, in October 2018, the Irish government passed the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill. The Act will introduce minimum unit pricing as well as rigorous regulations surrounding advertising, sponsorship, sale and supply. Under this legislation, Ireland may become the first country in the world to attach stark health warnings to alcohol products. Billed as the first time the Irish state has legislated for alcohol as a public health issue, the Act is intended to significantly alter the culture of drinking in Ireland. While unsurprisingly the subject of extensive lobbying from the drinks industry and other stakeholders, the measures have gained overwhelming support from the Irish medical profession. The Bill’s tortuous passage is therefore a reminder of Ireland’s ambivalent and complex relationship with alcohol. This relationship is deeply embedded in Irish politics, culture and society and has a very long historical lineage. 

A ‘Disease Concept’ of Inebriety

Ephraim M. Cosgrave (1853-1928). Courtesy of the
Royal College of Physician of Ireland Heritage Centre
Like their European and American colleagues, by the 1890s many Irish doctors were describing the inability to resist alcohol as a disease. But the belief shared by many that the ‘drunkard’ was to blame for their condition, and therefore deserved punishment, was resilient. 

Perhaps the most ardent Irish medical commentator on alcohol in this period was Ephraim MacDowel Cosgrave, a physician at several Dublin hospitals who would later become president of the Royal College of Physicians (RCPI). For Cosgrave, the creation of institutions specially designed for the ‘control of inebriates’ would be the answer to Ireland’s ‘drink question’.1  

Cosgrave was not alone in promoting this approach. Inebriate homes are said to have originated in the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century and by 1870 had begun to appear in Britain. Cosgrave’s stance mirrored British developments, where under the guidance of leading inebriety expert, Dr Norman Shanks Kerr, medical practitioners were canvassing for the system’s expansion. Yet, in Ireland, many doctors continued to recommend alternatives ranging from committal of drunkards to lunatic asylums to their detention at home by physical force.2  

Despite the almost draconian nature of these suggestions, such attitudes did not apparently extend to alcohol itself. Reacting to proposals to further restrict pub opening hours at weekends, in 1895 a contributor to the Dublin Journal of Medical Science declared:

We object to the grandmotherly legislation and coercion. The liberty of the subject is sufficiently restricted already, and the patience with which millions of law-respecting citizens tolerate the curtailment of their personal liberty, lest a weak brother should offend, is a marvellous testimony to our inborn respect for law. Restrictions and pledges cannot create an Utopia.3 

Such claims diverged significantly from the now commonly accepted ‘disease view’ of inebriety, which saw alcohol as an inherently addictive substance, which put anyone who drank at serious risk of losing control over their habit. In Ireland, at least some doctors were openly contesting further restrictions, a fact which lends further weight to traditional portrayals of more permissive popular attitudes towards drunkenness in Ireland. 

Institutions for Inebriates

Painting by patient in St Patrick’s Hospital, Dublin (1905).
Source: E/137 Case Book, Males, St. Patrick’s, p.32.
Calls for inebriate reformatories in Ireland were eventually met in 1898. The Inebriates Act of that year was the first to extend to Ireland and allowed for the committal to state-funded reformatories of anyone who was tried and convicted of drunkenness at least four times in one year. But what medical reformers had been campaigning for – that is the compulsory power to detain non-criminal inebriates – never became law. In Ireland, this Act led to the creation of four specialist institutions. Of these four, only the Lodge Retreat in Belfast accepted non-criminal inmates and these were limited to relatively wealthy (fee-paying) Protestant women with no compulsory power for their detention. The remaining three institutions could only be accessed by those committed through the courts. Perhaps unsurprisingly then, this inebriate system was short-lived, catered for only a small proportion of Ireland’s ‘habitual drunkards’ and by 1920, all but the Lodge Retreat in Belfast had closed.

Instead, lunatic asylums became the principal treatment centres for problem drinkers. By 1900, 1 in 10 people admitted to Irish asylums were sent there due to ‘intemperance in drink’. This trend gained increasing attention among psychiatrists, not least because of mounting uncertainty as to whether excessive drinking could actually cause mental illness. Some asylum doctors recognised intemperance as a manifestation of an existing mental disorder, others cited adulterated alcohol as a cause and still more believed that the habitual drunkard produced offspring liable to insanity. This latter claim was to be expected, given that alcohol and degeneration were now strongly linked in discussions of the alleged increase of insanity both in Ireland and overseas.

Given the influx of these cases, the Irish psychiatric community were soon called upon to respond. In 1904, delegates at a conference of the British Medico-Psychological Association in Dublin were confronted with evidence of the ‘disastrous effects everywhere observed’ of drink. Reporting on this event in the association’s official journal, the writer proclaimed:

It may cause some searching of conscience to ask whether our profession as a whole, and particularly our speciality, have up to the present taken a sufficient leading part in the holy war against alcohol. It is high time for our Irish colleagues to make themselves heard upon this subject, when in at least one asylum, one third of the male admissions are attributed chiefly to this cause.4 

This battle cry reverberated with the temperance rhetoric of the day, a movement which boasted strong support from some Irish asylum doctors. Meanwhile, members of the wider medical community showed signs of absorbing, and even propagating, the Nationalist-toned temperance claim that sobriety held the key to Irish independence. In 1904 a reviewer for the Dublin Journal of Medical Science decreed:

One of the heaviest blows which a patriotic Ireland could possibly inflict on its neighbouring British rulers would be given by taking the pledge all round – old and young – and keeping it! Why, we often say to ourselves, do not patriotic politicians utilise this fact?5 

In spite of calls to engage in the ‘holy war against alcohol’, Irish psychiatrists made little comment in the ensuing decades. Soon after, discussion of the links between alcoholism and degeneration became seriously compromised by new scientific studies which found no evidence that alcoholism in a parent gave rise to mental defects in their children.

As will be discussed in the next instalment of this series, after the First World War, there was a shift in focus towards alcohol and later, problem drinkers, with the eventual acceptance of a new ‘disease view’. 

Alice Mauger

Dr Alice Mauger
Dr Alice Mauger is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland in the School of History, University College Dublin. Her research project 'Alcohol Medicine and Irish Society, c. 1890-1970' is funded by the Wellcome Trust. The project explores the evolution of medicine's role in framing and treating alcoholism in Ireland. It aims to make a significant contribution to the medical humanities, exploring historical sources to better understand and contextualise Irish society's relationship with alcohol. Alice was awarded a PhD by UCD in 2014 for her thesis which examined public, voluntary and private asylum care in nineteenth-century Ireland. Prior to this she completed the MA programme on the Social and Cultural History of Medicine at the UCD Centre for the History of Medicine in Ireland, UCD. Both her MA and PhD were funded by the Wellcome Trust. 

Alice has published on the history of psychiatry in Ireland including a full-length monograph: The Cost of Insanity in Nineteenth-Century Ireland: Public, Voluntary and Private Asylum Care (Palgrave Macmillan: 2017), which is available via open access and in hardcopy.

1 Ephraim MacDowel Cosgrave, ‘The Control of Inebriates’, Dublin Journal of Medical Science, Vol. XCIII (Jan-Jun 1892), pp.178-85.

2 ‘Section of State Medicine’, Dublin Journal of Medical Science, Vol. XCIII (Jan-Jun 1892), pp.327-328.

3 ‘Review of Norman Kerr, Inebriety: its Etiology, Pathology, Treatment, and Jurisprudence, 3rd edition’, Dublin Journal of Medical Science, Vol. XCIX (Jan-Jun 1895), p.50.

4 ‘Intemperance’, Journal of Mental Science, 50, no. 208 (Jan 1904), pp.117-118, p.117.

5 ‘The Medical Temperance Review’, Dublin Journal of Medical Science, Vol CXVIII (Jul-Dec 1904), p.140.