The Points Interview (Special Edition): William L. White

Foreword from the Editor: William L. White’s Slaying the Dragon: A History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, 2nd edition (Chestnut Health Systems, 2014) chronicles the history of treatment institutions and mutual aid movements in the U.S. from the eighteenth century to the present. White’s sweeping history is both institutional (he explores a variety of treatment providers and approaches) and social (he excavates the stories of silenced and stigmatized recovery groups). The book deserves a place beside David Musto’s The American Disease on the bookshelves and comp lists of every alcohol and drug historian-in-training. 

Beyond academe, Slaying the Dragon has had a tremendous impact on the recovery movement since the first edition was published in 1998. Treatment institution records are fragmented and difficult to come by. Mutual aid societies have an elusive oral tradition. To date, most historical work on addiction treatment and recovery in the U.S. has been relatively narrow in scope. Finding diverse material synthesized in a single reference text, White reflects,  “helped many people in recovery see themselves as ‘a people’ and contributed to the rise of a new recovery advocacy movement in the U.S.”– a movement evidenced by organizations like Faces and Voices of Recovery, the rise of recovery-oriented systems of care, and the promotion of the U.S.’s first recovering ‘Drug Czar,’  Michael Botticelli.

Bill White, who has been working in the field of alcohol and drug treatment since the 1960s, joined Points for an interview about the history and future of addiction treatment.

Slaying the Dragon, Second Edition (Chestnut Health Systems, 2014)
Slaying the Dragon, Second Edition (Chestnut Health Systems, 2014)

Slaying the Dragon is a master narrative of the history of addiction treatment and recovery in the US. Can you briefly recap the story it tells for us?

The opening sections of Slaying the Dragon describe Native American and colonial responses to alcohol and other drug problems, review the rise of 19th century recovery mutual aid societies (including the Washingtonians, the Fraternal Temperance Societies, the Ribbon Reform Clubs, the Ollapod Club, the Godwin Association, and various moderation societies), and then recount the rise and fall of 19th century addiction treatment institutions—inebriate homes, inebriate asylums, private addiction cure institutes, and bottled and boxed home cures for the alcohol, tobacco, and drug habits. The middle sections explore the early history of treatment for addiction to drugs other than alcohol, describe the history and program of Alcoholics Anonymous, and recount the rise of the modern alcoholism movement. The final sections detail the birth and evolution of modern addiction treatment, outline historically unprecedented changes within the culture of recovery in the U.S., and attempt to extract lessons from this history that can influence professional and institutional decision-making.

Slaying the Dragon is a big (557 pages), sweeping story presented in bite-size, self-contained stories of key ideas, people, and institutions. It is written in a language and style that is accessible to people in recovery, addiction professionals, and policymakers, but it also provides a link to more than 100 pages of posted research citations for contemporary and future historians. The table of contents and a sample chapter are posted online at

Read more