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History of Alcohol Dependence

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The history of alcohol dependence can be traced back to the bible and followed into more recent times as the perception has evolved according to social trends and research. Drinking wine is mentioned in the bible in many passages, and there are a variety of interpretations of how it was viewed. Scripture does not necessarily forbid Christians from drinking beer, wine, or any other drink containing alcohol. Alcohol is not, in and of itself, tainted by sin. It is, rather, drunkenness and addiction to alcohol that a Christian must absolutely refrain from (Ephesians 5:18; 1 Corinthians 6:12). It says, "Wine is a mocker, strong drink a brawler, and whoever is intoxicated by it is not wise."(Proverb 20:1) The bible also states "older women, who would serve as role models to the younger ones, must not be addicted to wine."(Titus 2:3) The Bible at times speaks very harshly about becoming enslaved to drink or allowing it to control a person, especially to the point of drunkenness. It makes the distinction between drinking in celebration and drinking to excess.1

During the colonial period in America, alcohol was very much a part of a community's social life. Alcohol was used widely as both a beverage and a medicine, generally being considered a substance that was both enjoyable and healthful. Even drunkenness was tolerated so long as it did not interfere with a person's livelihood or religious observance. In the colonial view, the problem was not alcohol, but the individual who used alcohol. Habitual drunkenness, which kept people from working and praying, represented a weakness of character and a sin against God and the church. Punishment was colonial America's response to such weakness, and the stocks (i.e., structures that confined the arms and legs of social miscreants for public chastisement) were the colonial era's equivalent of the alcoholism treatment facility.2

During the mid-to-late 19th century, attempts to respond to alcohol problems shifted from trying to control the individual to trying to control the substance. With the Nation's population transforming from an agrarian to an industrial society, new social problems, such as poverty and crime, began to emerge (Jung 1994). Each of these social ills was seen as connected to alcohol use. In response, a social reform movement was born that began to focus on eliminating alcohol use as a means of eliminating social problems. Aggressive public information and legislative activities of anti-alcohol groups, such as the American Temperance Society, the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and the Anti-Saloon League, with their images of "demon rum" and ax-toting women, helped change Americans' perceptions of alcohol problems and caused them, in response, to consider them, eliminating the substance. Although many Americans tried very hard to forget about alcohol problems after Prohibition, changes were taking place in science and medicine, among public and private helping agencies, and, most importantly, among the group most affected by alcohol problems-the alcoholics themselves-to redefine alcohol-related problems as health problems.2

American alcohol science was effectively reborn in the 1930s – as it happened, the same decade Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) was born. Unlike AA, however – which in due course gave rise to an enormous historical literature – alcohol science has attracted little historical interest. Elvin Morton Jellinek (1890-1963), better known simply as "E.M.", was an important figure in the story of the new alcohol science movement. Jellinek would become the chief scientific hero of both the emergent "alcohol science movement" and the "modern alcoholism movement." Jellinek entered the alcohol field in 1939 when he was hired by Dr. Norman Jolliffe to manage the new Carnegie Project, the first substantial grant won by a group called the Research Council on Problems of Alcohol, the chief locus for emergent alcohol science in the late 1930s. Jellinek's two most notable scientific contributions were (1) the description of the alcoholism syndrome and (2) an alcoholism prevalence formula that bore his name, based on current cirrhosis mortality.3


  1. Daniel B. Wallace, Th.M., Ph.D. The Bible and Alcohol.

  2. Brenda G. Hewitt. The History of NIAAA. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. August 2006.

  3. Ron Roizen, Ph.D. E.M. Jellinek and All That! A Brief Look Back at the Origins of Post-Repeal Alcohol Science in the United States. University of California, San Francisco. October 20-26, 2000.

This page was last modified on : 10/28/2013

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