Historical Forms of Addiction

Man smoking hookahMind Hacks recently drew my attention to a rather unusual article entitled “Some Unusual Forms of Addiction.” The piece, first published in 1933, appeared in the British Journal of Inebriety, which started back in 1884 and continues to this day, under a title more in tune with modern sensibilities, British Journal of Addiction. All drug use appears to have been regarded as “addiction” by the article’s author, E. W. Adams. Adams was an official with the British Ministry of Health who had, a year earlier, been appointed to a government committee to decide the advisability of using mandatory sterilization to deal with “mental defectives” in Britain. (The committee included among its members the famed disciple of Francis Galton, Ronald A. Fisher.)

Among the “unusual forms” of drug use discussed are some that do not appear quite so unusual to the modern reader: cannabis, hashish, opium, heroin, cocaine, codeine. Some of the ways in which these drugs are used, however, remain rather outside Western norms. For instance, a group Adams calls “Zulu Kaffirs” are said to place burning manure on top of their hashish, poke holes through the mound with their fingers, and then lie down to inhale the smoke that emerges from these vents. Adams wryly concludes, “it is evident they like their dope full flavoured…” (The use of the term “Kaffir” here puzzled me because I thought Kaffirs were an Indian group. It turns out that Kaffirs are an ethnic group in Sri Lanka, but the term was also used as an ethnic slur for South African blacks, derived, somewhat oddly, from the Arabic “kafir,” meaning a non-Muslim “infidel.”)

The the article then moves on to some actually unusual (at least to me) forms of drug use: chloral hydrate, atropine, quinine(!), nitrous oxide, and paraldehyde. Most of the stories connected to these synthetic chemicals involved Western medical men rather than the “exotic” customs of non-Western people featured in the earlier cases.

About Christopher Green

Professor of Psychology at York University (Toronto). Former editor of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences. Creator of the "Classics in the History of Psychology" website and of the "This Week in the History of Psychology" podcast series.