Editor’s Note: This is the fourth installment in “The Way Back Machine,” a series of interviews with key theorists and practitioners of alcohol and drugs research, treatment, and recovery among women and communities of color during the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. Through these interviews, Points co-founder and Managing Editor Emerita Trysh Travis works out some of the theoretical issues she articulated almost ten years ago in “Feminist Anti-Addiction Discourse: Towards A Research Agenda.”
Most historians of alcohol and drugs know Jim Baumohl for two classic articles that examine alcohol institutions and policy history: “Inebriety, Doctors, and the State” (1987, with Robin Room) and “Building Systems to Manage Inebriates: The Divergent Paths of California and Massachusetts, 1891–1920” (1994, with Sarah Tracy). Few, however, are familiar with his rich body of work on poverty and homelessness—a polymorphous collection of research articles, white papers, and agency reports that basically map the US government’s failure to adequately imagine (much less implement) solutions to those issues in the post-Great Society era.
Currently Professor Emeritus of Social Work at Bryn Mawr’s Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research, Baumohl began his career in the most direct of “direct service” jobs, doing street outreach with runaway youth in Berkeley during the early 1970s. With Henry Miller (no, not that Henry Miller!), he authored Down and Out in Berkeley: An Overview of a Study of Street People (1974) while earning an MSW in Berkeley’s Social Welfare program.
He worked as an itinerant researcher, consultant, and tenant organizer while completing his PhD, which culminated in his dissertation “Dashaways and Doctors: The Treatment of Habitual Drunkards in San Francisco from the Gold Rush to Prohibition.” This field-defining monograph reveals the degree to which innovations in alcohol services generally attributed to the vague forces of “medicalization” and “the Progressive era” were intimately tied to the culture and politics of specific states. Baumohl is now at work on a suite of articles that look at California’s management of alcohol and other drugs—and of the people who used them excessively—from statehood in 1850 to the closure of the California State Narcotic Hospital in 1941.
Like many of the folks featured in The Way Back Machine series, Jim Baumohl’s life during the 1970s and ‘80s featured a mix of political, intellectual, and research work. The rapidly shifting policy landscape created a set of conditions that invited creative, big-picture thinking as well as a strange mix of unabashed idealism and self-preserving sarcasm. All of these were on brilliant display when Points Managing Editor Emeritus Trysh Travis sat down with Jim for a two-part interview.