Why Do You Slight Benjamin Rush's Discovery that Alcoholism Is a Disease?

Jeffrey Beadle wrote:

Why do you choose to overlook that the disease model of Alcoholism began in the 1700s? It was declared a disease by Dr. Benjamin Rush in Philadelphia, PA and by other doctors in Europe during the same period.

Is it true that Alcoholic's digest and break down Alcohol differently from non Alcoholic's?

Is it controversial that there are some things that science may never fully understand?

Dear Jeff:

Is it true that Alcoholic's digest and break down Alcohol differently from non Alcoholic's? Stanton Peele responds here.Indeed, Benjamin Rush originated the disease theory of alcoholism in the latter part of the eighteenth century. Do you know that, in his disease theory, it was necessary only to abstain from ardent spirits but not cider or wine? On the downside, do you know that Benjamin Rush conceived of minority political group dissent, lying, and murder as mental illnesses (in the latter cases, at least, anticipating modern developments in psychiatry), and he also defined "negritude" as a special type of leprosy. So, the fact the disease theory was "declared" a disease by the Colonial physician—although not really widely adopted in the U.S. until the Temperance movement promoted Rush's views of the inevitable progression of alcoholism in the middle of the next century—proves. . . . (Incidentally, I maintained your capitalization of "Alcohol" and "Alcoholic" because these remind me of Colonial writings.)

Jeff, the acetaldehyde theory of alcohol breakdown, advanced by James Milam in his widely popular book, Under the Influence, is now not well accepted, even by those who assert a large role for genes in alcoholism. I deal with this in any number of places: see the genetics index of my library, an overview of which I provide in one of my FAQs. I debated Milam at an NIAAA conference in 1988, and it was an eye-opening experience. Mr. Milam, who now calls me a liar, was not well-focused and spent most of his time engaging in ad hominem attacks of Herb Fingarette, who Milam claimed was supposed to be his opponent (after the debate, Enoch Gordis joked to me about Milam's mental state).

Milam's piece de resistance was an impassioned description of the plight of alcoholic Native Americans. However, Native Americans do seem to support well the notion of acetaldehyde explanations for alcoholism, since Asian groups which share the Native American trait of the quick breakdown of alcohol do not share a ready susceptibility to alcoholism.

Your question about things that "science may never fully understand" is very intriguing. I might also say that when people don't really understand something, they seek answers in many places. To me, the resort to half-baked genetic explanations is actually very parallel to the search for angels, psychic revelations, and belief in the afterlife—magical solutions for irresolvable human problems which it depresses people to think we cannot solve.

Very best,

next: Book - Addiction Proof Your Child
~ all Stanton Peele articles
~ addictions library articles
~ all addictions articles

APA Reference
Staff, H. (2009, January 3). Why Do You Slight Benjamin Rush's Discovery that Alcoholism Is a Disease?, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2020, September 27 from

Last Updated: June 27, 2016

Medically reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

More Info