Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Keeley Cure for Alcoholism

Late 19th Century America history is one of my favorite eras, it was a time when we, as a nation, was really trying to figure things out. The ideas, social movements and inventions of the times range from amazing and wonderful to downright wacky. What I find very amusing is that some of the greatest minds of the time, some of my favorite people in history embraced some of these wacky ideas. Walt Whitman, my favorite poet, was a big proponent of phrenology (predicting one's future by reading the bumps on one's head). Charles Dickens believed in spontaneous human combustion so much that he actually had a minor character (Krook) in one of his novels, Bleak House, spontaneously burn to death without any apparent reason.

I am reading Erik Larsen's The Devil in the White City which is a non-fiction telling of the Chicago World's Fair in 1893 and the events building up to it. It is fascinating not only for the historical story of Daniel Burnham (the main architect but also the grandfather my local jazz dj here in Vermont) but also the gruesome story of serial killer H.H. Holmes who used the chaos of the Fair, the largest peaceful gathering of humans up that point in history, to hide his activity.

In the book, one of the characters is sent away to deal with his alcoholism. The euphemism of the day is being "sent to Dwight." The Keeley Institute was in Dwight, Illinois and it was the home of the Keeley Cure. At the peak of its popularity, there was around 200 of these facilities in America and Europe. Unlike AA, they encouraged you to drink at these facilities while they administered a potion that would cure you of the disease of alcoholism. The potion was mostly gold chloride a compound of gold and chlorine. The last Keeley Institute went out of business in 1965.

However quackish the Keeley Cure seems, it was influential in two ways. It treated alcoholism as a disease and it created a retreat where patients could be away from the rest of the world, two practices that continue into the 21st Century.

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