Our Long, Strange Addiction Treatment Trip

If our country’s 200-plus year history of addiction treatment tells us one thing it’s this: There is little that people won’t try to overcome an addiction to alcohol or drugs. It’s led to some bizarre, intriguing and deeply unethical treatments — some put forward with the best intentions; others created by those happy to exploit the addicted person’s desperation and society’s frustration. Renowned historian and addiction expert William “Bill” L. White documents them all in his landmark book, Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, first printed in 1998 and updated in 2014. Among the many striking examples he brings to light are these:

Aversion Therapy

It’s one of the earliest forms of addiction treatment, dating back to the 1780s, and it’s still in use in some forms today: aversion therapy. The idea is to connect substance use with an unpleasant feeling or emotion in the hope of sparking a revulsion to the drink or drug. In the early days, that revulsion was induced in some decidedly disturbing ways. A patient in the early 1800s might be made to drink wine in which an eel had been smothered, for example, or to consume powderized pork that had been hidden “in the bed of a Jew” for nine days. In some cases, relatives were urged to put bugs or worms in their loved one’s liquor stash. Sparrow’s dung, mole blood and the patient’s own urine were also used to prompt aversion. Several mail-order potions, usually containing a nauseant, were designed to be secretly slipped into drinks. The allure here was the suggestion that the problem drinker could be cured without his or her knowledge. Perhaps the ultimate aversion technique was one attempted — albeit briefly — in the 1960s. Alcohol was placed on the patient’s lips as the person was administered a drug that induced temporary paralysis. For a full 60 seconds, the patient was able to neither breathe nor move and would be convinced they were dying. Despite the terror of the experience, the vast majority of the subjects quickly returned to drinking.

Horse Vaccine

Could alcoholism be controlled by a vaccine? An experiment involving horses held out hope at the turn of the 20th century. The horses were fed alcohol until they, essentially, became alcoholic horses. The blood of these animals was then injected into other horses, which were then reported to develop a revulsion to alcohol. From the horse blood, an anti-alcohol antibody was developed, but the benefit apparently didn’t extend beyond the equine world. Human trials proved inconclusive.


One thing recognized early on was that substance use issues tended to run in families. To some minds, then, the answer seemed simple: Stop drunks and drug addicts from procreating and the problem would die with them. Thus, those with alcohol or drug issues were added to a growing list of people who society decided should lose their right to procreate as part of the eugenics movement of the early 20th century. That list also included those with mental illnesses, deformities, tendencies toward criminal acts or “feeble-mindedness.” This horrifying attempt to control populations deemed undesirable (a mindset embraced with enthusiasm by the Nazi regime) led to more than 60,000 Americans undergoing involuntary sterilization in the 20th century — a process that continued up through the 1950s. Exactly how many of those were alcoholics or drug users is not known, but institutions and asylums that served the addicted were known to pressure patients to submit to sterilization before they were allowed to leave.

The Serum Cure

 By the late 1930s, the nation had succeeded in creating two addiction treatment facilities, which tried to provide at least some semblance of care. For those without access to these centers, however, the alternative was to turn to the latest experimental treatments. These generally ranged from the simply ineffective to the dangerous. One experimental treatment was the “serum cure,” in which heat plasters were used to raise blisters on the addict’s skin. Serum was then syphoned from the blisters and injected into the patient’s muscles about four or five times over the next week or two. “Remarkable cures” were claimed.

The Keeley Cure

Gold was believed to be the magic ingredient in Dr. Leslie Keeley’s Double Chloride of Gold Cure, but its true ingredients remained a closely guarded secret. (One early founder later testified that the only patient treated with actual gold almost died.) What is known is that the Keeley Cure was wildly popular in its heyday — between 1880 and 1920 — and it actually appears to have worked to diminish a craving for alcohol, drugs and nicotine for a large proportion of the more than 500,000 who underwent the treatment at Keeley franchises throughout the country. Its centerpiece was a sequence of injections of the “Gold Cure” given at specific times throughout the day. Patients developed Keeley Leagues to continue the fellowship that had developed as they stood in line multiple times daily for their shots. And this camaraderie, rather than any precious metal, was likely the Keeley Cure’s real magic.

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