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January 19, 1990

An Essay, Medical, Philosophical, and Chemical on Drunkenness and Its Effects on the Human Body

Author Affiliations

Kansas University Medical Center Kansas City

Kansas University Medical Center Kansas City


by Thomas Trotter (Tavistock Classics in the History of Psychiatry, W. F. Bynum and R. Porter, eds), 203 pp, $42.50, New York, NY, Routledge, 1988.

JAMA. 1990;263(3):461. doi:10.1001/jama.1990.03440030150042

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In 1804, the Scottish physician Thomas Trotter declared that drunkenness was a disease. He came up with the idea while writing his MD dissertation. He thought it was a new idea. It wasn't. Earlier writers had described inebriety as a medical condition. One of them was Benjamin Rush, whose 1785 monograph on ardent spirits is a classic.

Still, alcoholism didn't become widely accepted as a disease until the 19th century, and Trotter's book was partly responsible. It was a charming work and was translated into several languages. It was one of those pivotal works that influence generations to come, often without the generations knowing the history of the influence.

The Tavistock Classics in the History of Psychiatry has published the book in its original form, with the quaint 18th century spellings where s resembles f and "epilepsy" is spelled "epilepfy." Whether readability is more important than verisimilitude can be argued,