Editor’s Note: Matthew Warner Osborn is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Missouri- Kansas City. He talks with Points about his first book Rum Maniacs: Alcoholic Insanity in the Early American Republic (University of Chicago, 2014), which looks at how delirium tremens shaped our modern conceptions of alcoholism.
Remember the pink elephants in Dumbo? He accidently gets drunk and starts having a wild dream about Technicolor pachyderms. That scene is an allusion to delirium tremens, a deadly disease that can develop in cases of acute alcohol withdrawal. Why would delirium tremens be in a children’s cartoon? It turns out that people have been fascinated by alcohol-induced insanity since the early nineteenth century.
My book looks at the history of delirium tremens in the early United States. The central questions of the book are why did physicians become fascinated by the disease in the 1810s, and what were the medical, social, political, and cultural consequences of that fascination? The disease radically transformed medical responses to alcohol abuse. It shaped new ideas about poverty, failure, class, and gender. And it played a central role in shaping the medical conviction and popular belief that heavy habitual drinking can be pathological.