An Artificial Appetite: The Nineteenth-Century Struggle to Define Habitual Drunkenness

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April 30, 2024

After discovering in 1811 that alcohol existed as a discrete chemical substance in all intoxicating drinks, physicians reconsidered the individual’s responsibility for becoming a compulsive drinker. Looking to science and medicine for legitimacy, temperance reformers ascribed a deleterious agency to alcohol and personified it as an agent of physiological destruction. Alcohol destroyed the body and transformed natural alimentary desires into a compulsive artificial appetite for alcohol. Reformers, prohibitionists, and physicians were troubled that alcohol possessed the ability to destroy the physical capacity for the power of choice. Ascribing agency to alcohol destabilized long-standing understandings of intemperance as a vice and imbued habitual drunkenness with medical meanings. However, most professionals remained anxious about absolving the habitual drunkard of all responsibility, especially for taking the first drink. An inchoate attempt to capture the medical and moral dilemmas of compulsion, habitual drunkenness represents a conceptual missing link in the genealogy of addiction.