Cherry-Picking the History of the Alcoholism Movement (1)

Mann-book-coverSometimes useful pieces of historical evidence may be found lying around in plain sight.  A case in point concerns the relationship between Alcoholics Anonymous and the disease concept of alcoholism.  In 2002, Ernest Kurtz, A.A.’s distinguished academic historian, published a well-argued article asserting that the disease concept of alcoholism was not one of A.A.’s core philosophical commitments (2).  Yet – as Kurtz also noted — the disease concept has been part of A.A.’s operational vernacular for a long time.  Sociologist Annette R. Smith has recently suggested that the acceptance of the disease concept is a crucial step in a new A.A. member’s conversion to an alcoholic identity (3).  If both Kurtz and Smith are correct–and I believe they are–then how did an idea that is not part of the group’s core philosophy nevertheless become a central element in A.A.’s actual praxis?

A key part of the answer lies in the promotional campaign of Mrs. Marty Mann.  In 1944, Mann was employed by Howard W. Haggard and E.M. Jellinek at the Yale Center of Alcohol Studies to promote the disease concept to the American public.  The Yale group’s ultimate aim for Mann’s campaign was the establishment of a single-disease advocacy organization for alcoholism treatment and research enterprises – an organization not unlike the American Cancer Society or the American Lung Association.  This advocacy group, Yale leadership hoped, would in due course provide a stream of donations for the support of their own alcohol-related research.  The Yale group’s plan for Mann doubtless sprang in large part from a report prepared by Dwight Anderson for the Research Council on Problems of Alcohol, later published in a 1942 article titled “Alcohol and Public Opinion” (4).  Anderson argued that the new scientific approach to alcohol-related problems proffered by the Research Council (and, by extension, the Yale group) needed a new symbol to differentiate itself unmistakably from the old vying “dry” and “wet” camps of the previous era.  The idea that the alcoholic was “a sick man,” Anderson contended, would perform very nicely as that new symbol.Yet Mann’s campaign was dogged by a crucial ambiguity. 

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