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The Points Interview: Matthew Warner Osborn

Updated: Aug 30

Editor’s Note: Matthew Warner Osborn is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Missouri- Kansas City. He talks with Points about his first book Rum Maniacs: Alcoholic Insanity in the Early American Republic (University of Chicago, 2014), which looks at how delirium tremens shaped our modern conceptions of alcoholism.

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Remember the pink elephants in Dumbo? He accidently gets drunk and starts having a wild dream about Technicolor pachyderms. That scene is an allusion to delirium tremens, a deadly disease that can develop in cases of acute alcohol withdrawal. Why would delirium tremens be in a children’s cartoon? It turns out that people have been fascinated by alcohol-induced insanity since the early nineteenth century.

My book looks at the history of delirium tremens in the early United States. The central questions of the book are why did physicians become fascinated by the disease in the 1810s, and what were the medical, social, political, and cultural consequences of that fascination? The disease radically transformed medical responses to alcohol abuse. It shaped new ideas about poverty, failure, class, and gender. And it played a central role in shaping the medical conviction and popular belief that heavy habitual drinking can be pathological.

What do you think a bunch of alcohol and drug historians might find particularly interesting about your book?

My book has a pretty different take on a number of topics in nineteenth-century alcohol history. Historians tend to think of this period as dominated by the evangelical temperance movement and capitalist entrepreneurs. They have largely dismissed medical ideas during this period as inspired by moralistic temperance ideology. And historians of addiction have ignored the history of delirium tremens. Most histories of addiction begin with Benjamin Rush and skip over the period between his death in 1812 and the Civil War.

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I dispute the idea that Rush was an architect of modern theories of addiction. I show that the first convincing theories of alcohol addiction came out of the study of delirium tremens in the 1820s. Antebellum physicians spent a lot of time treating inebriates, and thinking and writing about the effects of alcohol on the body and mind, and they produced an enormous literature. I demonstrate that physicians were extremely influential in shaping the antebellum temperance movement and making it so successful, and, conversely, that the medical preoccupation with alcohol abuse was important to shaping a new American medical profession. I also show that delirium tremens played a crucial role not only in transforming medical perceptions of alcohol abuse, but, as demonstrated by Dumbo, in shaping popular beliefs about alcohol and drug addiction.

Now that the hard part is over, what is the thing YOU find most interesting about your book?

Delirium tremens is a horrible disease. I haven’t witnessed it, but in reading accounts, talking to hospital workers and to a few people who have suffered the disease, it’s just awful. I’m fascinated by how this terrible medical condition became an object of such intense fascination to respectable middle class people. In the 1840s and 1850s, performances of delirium tremens occurred in some of the most popular melodramas of the century. In my research, I never expected to find so many linkages between the medical history of the disease and the theatrical culture of the era. Delirium tremens was fascinating in part because it evoked elements of popular culture. It was always a theatrical phenomenon, even before it was performed on stage. I think this insight is important to understanding the intense twentieth-century preoccupation with alcoholism.

Every research project leaves some stones unturned. What stone are you most curious to see turned over


I wrote the epilogue last, and I really enjoyed investigating the twentieth-century resonances of the nineteenth-century fascination with delirium tremens. The epilogue was very short, of course, but I found all sorts of tantalizing threads that I would love to pursue. I think the long history of delirium tremens, for instance, has some bearing on understanding the popularity of psychedelics in the 1960s. Dumbo came out in 1942, but when we look at it now, the Technicolor pachyderms look like they come from the psychedelic era. Erica Dyck’s book Psychedelic Psychiatry talks about how physicians in the 1950s gave LSD to alcoholics to replicate the experience of delirium tremens. Incorporating delirium tremens into the much broader longue durée of the social and cultural history of altered states of consciousness could lead in some interesting directions.

BONUS QUESTION: In an audio version of this book, who should provide the narration?

I would love my book to be performed by Alice Cooper in a stadium concert. But, ok, maybe Vincent Price and Peter Lorre could read it to each other.

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