Who Bought Whom? Revisiting “Bowman’s Compromise”

As I reported in my 1991 dissertation,(1) the fledgling Research Council on Problems of Alcohol voted to narrow its future scientific attentions to studies of alcoholism only in the autumn of 1939.  Future Council research on other alcohol-related topics, including possible new studies of alcohol’s effects on the human organism or society, would henceforth be substantially de-emphasized or postponed.(2)  Karl M. Bowman, chairman of the Council’s Executive Committee, suggested this shift of research focus in a September 7, 1939 letter to the Council’s Scientific Committee.   Members were also sent a two-page report vigorously advocating the newly proposed policy, prepared by a Special Committee on Financial Policy.

Ray Lyman Wilbur, Feb. 10, 1930

I found these two documents – Bowman’s letter and the financial committee’s two-page report — in boxes of Ray Lyman Wilbur’s archived files on the Research Council of Problems of Alcohol at Stanford University’s Lane Medical Library in (if memory serves) October, 1990, as I was researching my dissertation.  It was a very lucky find.  My dissertation’s burning question was:  How had the nation’s new focus on the problem of alcoholism (and the subsequent development of the modern alcoholism movement) emerged from the ashes of national prohibition in the early post-Repeal period?  Both Mark Keller’s and Bruce Holley Johnson’s previous accounts of this early period had highlighted the important role of the Research Council on Problems of Alcohol.(3)  Yet neither author had addressed the question of why the Council’s large and prestigious body of American scientists took so keen an interest in alcoholism.  I was rummaging through Ray Lyman Wilbur’s old Council files trying to shed light on the matter. 

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