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Can We Conquer ALCOHOLISM
Director, National Committee
For Education on Alcoholism
are not dealing here with a minor problem. We are dealing
with what a former Assistant Surgeon General of the United
States Public Health Service has rightly called “our
greatest unsolved public-health problem.” It is not
unsolved because it is a new problem. It remains unsolved
because it is a problem we never have faced. The majority
of people in their ignorance and fear scarcely admit of
its existence. Alcoholism has for too long been a taboo
subject, as tuberculosis used to be forty years ago. Any
child can tell you that no problem can be solved by refusing
to recognize its existence. Equally true is the fact that
no problem can be solved while people are unaware of its
Many groups have been concerned for years with the problem
of beverage alcohol. Millions of words spoken and written
on behalf of hundreds of organizations have dealt with this.
In the last analysis this concern has resolved itself into
a violent tug of war between the “wets” and
the “drys.” In that tug of war it has been said
that the alcoholic has been the rope-and that rope has become
badly frayed. No organization until recently has concerned
itself with public recognition of the alcoholic or the nature
of his dilemma. This is where the National Committee for
Education on Alcoholism comes in.
The National Committee is not concerned with beverage alcohol
itself. We take no sides in that ancient tug of war. We
state flatly, in fact, that this organization, the National
Committee for Education on Alcoholism, and all its affiliated
committees-twenty-two of them at this date-are neither “wet”
nor “dry.” We go further. We state that this
organization shall not concern itself in any activities
designed to promote or prevent the sale or consumption of
Our concern is with a disease called alcoholism and its
victims, those hapless, suffering human beings who are known
We recognized, as did others concerned with the problem
of alcoholism, that practically nothing was known by the
general public of this disease. We realized that because
of this lack of knowledge, the public attitude ranged from
utter ignorance, through apathy and indifference, up to
prejudice and active antagonism. The public attitude reflects
not only a total lack of factual knowledge, but also the
presence of a mass of misinformation and falsehoods. Out
of this attitude has grown the type of treatment which the
citizens of these United States have given and still give
to that segment of the population who suffer from this illness.
I think you know what that treatment is as well as I do.
It is hostile, contemptuous, and punitive. It is completely
without understanding and often without pity.
In most cities in this country there is no place to put
the alcoholic who is in the throes of this deadly malady,
except the local jail. We, as a nation, are not wont to
treat our sick in that fashion. We are not cruel and barbarous.
We are not medieval. We pride ourselves on being enlightened;
and we are, on the whole, a kind people. Yet to a great
body of sick human beings we offer only punishment for their
illness. We behave as if we were still in the Middle Ages.
attitude is shared by those who suffer from this illness.
I can tell you from my own experience. I had never heard
the word “alcoholic;” I had never heard the
word “alcoholism.” Of course, I had heard of
drunkards; everyone has, I also knew, or thought I knew,
what a drunkard was. He was that unfortunate person whom
one saw in the less pretty part of town, shuffling about
in rags, bearded, unwashed, sleeping in doorways, in gutters,
sticking out filthy hands for a dime for a cup of coffee.
You hoped he wouldn’t touch you.
If I had given any thought to the subject, I would have
described him as a person who had never had the opportunity
to know a normal way of life. Or if by chance he had been
born to better things, he had something missing, something
that made him unable to take advantage of his opportunities.
I would have said that there was nothing that could be done
about it; and if there were, he wouldn’t be worth
salvaging as there wasn’t anything there in the first
How can a man who still has a job or has recently lost his
job through drinking come out openly and say: “I am
a drunkard; I have no will power; I have no character; I
am a bum”? He isn’t and knows he isn’t.
He is faced with the same dilemma in which I found myself:
Why is it that my will power is so strong on everything
else and has no effect on drinking?
The wall of ignorance and prejudice nearly killed me, and
it is killing other alcoholics every day. If we can break
that wall down we can reach these people and help them.
In every city where we have information centers they are
coming and asking for information, and their families and
friends and employers are coming. They are all asking: “What
is this thing, alcoholism?” “What can we do
about it?” “Where can we go in this city for
help?” The centers that have been established have
the answers. They know what hospital will take alcoholics
and whether there are any such places in the community;
whether others can be persuaded to admit alcoholics and
what can be, at long last, provided for these desperately
sick people. Can we provide medical treatment that will
prevent their deaths? Yes, we can, and we must.
I know, by virtue of my own position as an alcoholic, thousands
of men and women who have recovered from this illness. I
can assure you from my personal experience that these people
make better than average citizens. It is as if they felt
they had to make up for lost time. They put themselves into
things with twice the amount of energy of anyone else. They
work harder at it and give more of themselves. These people
are well worth saving, and yet today we are allowing them
to die right and left.
This situation must be changed. It is our belief that it
will be changed when the public is placed in possession
of the facts. That is the challenging task which we have
accepted. We wished to make these facts as simple as possible
that they might be understood by every man, woman, and child
in this country. In order to do this, we adopted three simple
concepts which are printed on each piece of our literature,
and which our speakers reiterate over and over again throughout
the cities of this land. These concepts are simple, but
they are revolutionary in content, for they embody an attitude
which is exactly the opposite to that shown by our actions
in the past. We believe that when these concepts are accepted
into the thinking of the people of America, a change in
their actions must result. The three concepts are as follows:
Alcoholism is a disease, and the alcoholic is a sick person.
2) The alcoholic can be helped and is worth helping.
3) Alcoholism is a public-health problem and therefore a
The fact that alcoholism is a disease has been known to
science for more than a century and a half. Many great Americans
of the last century recognized this fact, although it was
an English doctor who, in 1778, wrote the first modern treatise
on the diagnosis and treatment of the disease of alcoholism.
The Connecticut Medical Society recognized alcoholism as
a disease requiring special treatment and hospitals for
that treatment in a resolution it presented to the Connecticut
State Legislature in 1830.
I myself was ashamed when I learned these things. Yet I
was not to blame for my ignorance, for I had never been
taught any such facts. Just the same, it is curious, is
it not, that scientific facts well know to science for such
a long period should never have become common knowledge?
The normal gap, they tell me, between a scientific discovery
and its acceptance by the public is twenty years. Why in
the case of alcoholism should this gap be so extended? We
are late in starting, but we are trying desperately to bridge
that gap as speedily and as effectively as possible now.
This, in short, is our primary objective.
Our second concept, that the alcoholic can be helped and
is worth helping, is a statement that could not have been
made even ten years ago from a public platform, because
it could not have been proved. Although there have always
been alcoholics who got well by one means or another and
walked among us as normal human beings, they dared not mention
what the nature of their illness had been. The stigma attached
to alcoholism was so great that, if people knew the truth,
these recovered alcoholics might have jeopardized their
whole future-their jobs, their family relationships, their
place in society. Not until the creation of Alcoholics Anonymous
twelve years ago was there any change in this situation.
Then for the first time alcoholics began to get well in
numbers. Banded together in groups, they had the strength
to face the hostile world and to talk of this illness from
which they had recovered. They talked so that other alcoholics
might learn the truth about their condition, and seek help.
Their voices were heard. Today Alcoholics Anonymous numbers
more than 35,000 active members. These are well and happy
people, prosperous citizens who have returned to their places
in their communities. They are assets-no longer liabilities.
They make good citizens, these people who a few years ago
were a stone around the neck of everyone who knew them;
a care and a burden and a terrible cost to themselves, their
families, their employers, and their communities. Liabilities
in every sense, they represented not only appalling economic
waste, but also the most terrible human waste, heartbreak,
broken homes, and tragedies of every sort. Yet today they
are assets. These people can be seen and they are known
for their accomplishments. They are the living proof of
our second concept.
Our last concept, that this is a public-health problem and
therefore a public responsibility, follows inevitably upon
acceptance of the other two. This is our job, yours and
mine, as citizens and human beings. We, the people, create
public attitudes and we can change them. The majority of
the estimated three million alcoholics in this country fall
into the category of what I call the hidden alcoholic. These
are usually persons who have some family left, and that
family will go to any length to hide the fact that alcoholism
has struck in their midst. In their opinion the shame and
degradation of publicity far outweighs the welfare of the
alcoholic. The alcoholic is “protected,” hidden
from view, but actually he is being prevented from getting
help. Not until the stigma is removed and alcoholism is
discussed as freely and as openly as any other illness,
will these people dare to seek help. We must remove this
stigma if we are to save thousands from unnecessary deaths.
So our efforts cannot stop with a mere change in public
opinion. We must see to it that there are other places than
jails in which to put these sick people when they are in
the delirium of their sickness-acute intoxication. We must
set up information centers where individuals, families,
friends, agencies, doctors, and ministers can go to get
the facts on the disease itself, and on the facilities available
in that area for its treatment. These centers must ceaselessly
carry on an intensive campaign of education in their communities,
aimed at uncovering hidden alcoholics and providing an environment
of enlightened unstandering in which recovery will be possible.
Most communities will find that there are not many facilities
other than the local group of Alcoholics Anonymous about
which they can give information. Yet other facilities will
be needed. Therefore, these organized groups must next undertake
the difficult task of persuading general hospitals to open
beds for the treatment of acute alcoholism. This is a matter
of crisis, of extreme emergency, in which the lack of immediate
medical treatment all too frequently causes death. Next
they will need a clinic for diagnosis and treatment, and
later they will need rest centers for those who require
We can now say that we know this program of community action
is a beginning toward the solution of the problem which
is so appalling in its devastation and waste. We can say
we know because we already have twenty-two such affiliated
committees operating in eighteen cities throughout the country,
and the progress they report is more than encouraging. It
has convinced us that we can solve the problem of alcoholism
in America, if we will.
Health, July 1947)