The Points Interview: Erika Dyck

For our third installment of the Points Interview, we move from alcohol to LSD, and a conversation with Erika Dyck, author of Psychedelic Psychiatry: LSD From Clinic to Campus. Erika is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of Saskatchewan. Readers interested in more compelling work in the history of medicine and health may wish to check out a new edited volume by Erika Dyck and Christopher Fletcher, Locating Health: Historical and Anthropological Investigations of Place and Health.

Describe your book in terms your mother (or the average mother-in-the-street) could understand.

The Sixties are often remembered for the day-Glow images, groovy terms, tie-dyedCover of Psychedelic Psychiatry fashions, trippy music and, for some people, perhaps even as a period of social and moral degeneration. LSD has been blamed (or credited) for helping to create this imagery, but the drug has a longer history. It was first developed in 1938 and was legally used in thousands of research studies throughout the 1950s before it became known as a more popular recreational drug. My book looks at one of these sets of studies; a set of experiments that took place off the beaten path but that had a significant influence on the way that LSD was studied, understood, and later abused. In the small town of Weyburn, Saskatchewan, with support from Tommy Douglas’ provincial government, the same government that introduced Medicare to Canadians, researchers coined the term ‘psychedelic’ and left their mark on a generation. This book is about those prairie-based psychedelic pioneers.

What do you think a bunch of drug and alcohol historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

Drug and alcohol historians may already be familiar with the mythology surrounding LSD and the psychedelic ethos, but they may be less familiar with the way in which LSD was used as a treatment for alcoholism.

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Rural Distilling in Burma and Nigeria

A Rural Distillery in Inle, Burma

On a visit to Myanmar/Burma in late December I toured the region surrounding Inle Lake, well known for its spectacular beauty and villages on stilts.  A boat trip to the southern reaches of the lake took us to a regional market and to several temple sites—and to a local distillery.  We were welcomed by the owner, a man in his 30s who was in the third generation in his family to operate the business.  He gave us a thorough description of the distilling process:  outside in large metal vats about the size of garbage cans rice was cooked.  The cooked rice was then transferred into the main distillery building, dirt floor and about 50 feet long with a thatch roof and woven bamboo walls.  There the rice was mixed with yeast and allowed to ferment into rice wine in large pots.  After several days these were heated and the steam moved through 10 foot pipes to pots filled with cool water.  The distilled rice liquor then dripped into pitchers.  This liquor in various strengths was then decanted into bottles labeled “Best Jungle Wine.” 

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RehabTV?

Television narrative has long mined drug and alcohol use and abuse for inciting incidents. As a plot device deployed to inaugurate conflict within a television narrative, drugs and alcohol can really do the trick, whether for single episodes or for multi-episode story arcs. In a dramatic series, this or that beloved character might become addicted to drugs or alcohol, while a situation comedy might devote a “very special episode” to the impact of drugs or alcohol upon one or more of its characters. Crime shows, in particular, are especially drug- and alcohol-dependent, with intoxicant related crimes contributing myriad story arcs for shows as historically and stylistically diverse as Dragnet, Police Woman and The Wire.

Yet within the last decade or so, several emerging televisual subgenres have begun using drugs and alcohol as a narrative device in ways that might prove historically significant. While a full accounting of the ways drugs and alcohol manifest on contemporary television screens certainly exceeds my task in this brief comment, several noteworthy ways that contemporary television narratives “use” drugs and alcohol warrant consideration. (For the purposes of this discussion, I employ the term “television narrative” to address a diverse array of televisual genres, including both scripted dramas and comedies alongside what is widely referred to as “reality” tv, the myriad documentary television programs which, though ostensibly “unscripted,” nonetheless utilize a range of editing and production techniques to sculpt the dramatic action internal to each episode and, often, across the span of a multi-episode “season” of programming.)

The three subgenres I would like to highlight are, in turn, domestic dramas of narco-trafficking; “drunk girls gone wild” reality shows; and, perhaps most ubiquitously, RehabTV.

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On Moving Beyond “Context”

Perhaps it is because I teach in a medical school, rather than a traditional academic history department, but over the past two years I have become increasingly interested in thinking about how historical scholarship can directly contribute to solving current problems. When people discover where I teach they often ask me, in a somewhat quizzical way, what I actually do. How do I spend my time? What do I contribute? Why have a historian at a medical school at all?

It’s a good set of questions. I typically respond with something about “context”  – how history helps us understand the present, or raises interesting questions about the direction we are going, or some other such formulation. This is all true, of course, and its important. I wouldn’t be a historian if I didn’t think in these terms. But I have also started to wonder if historians can do more – and, if we can, whether or not we should. So, I’ve started to ask myself: what can historical scholarship contribute to the design and implementation of health interventions? To the crafting of public health policy? To the definition and measurement of quantifiable problems and outcomes? To the generation of grant money? Can historians do more than talk about the past in order to provide “context” for the labor of others? And should we?

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