Alcoholism and drug use were hot topics during the eugenics movement. In the early 1900s, many people believed that there was a distinct rise in the number of degenerates or feeble-minded individuals throughout society. This led to the belief that positive selective breeding needed to occur to prevent the hereditary inheritance of certain negative traits. Many eugenicists believed that the ‘epidemic’ of degeneracy was caused in part by the consumption of alcohol. These individuals joined in the fight for prohibition on the side of the ‘Drys’. Similar arguments were put forth for the use of drugs, most commonly opiates. Opiate drugs commonly associated with degeneracy were heroin and opium. Non-medicinal use of opiates was criminalized in Canada during the early 20th century. Yet many eugenicists also sided with the 'Wet' sides in the prohibition debate. These were individuals who argued that alcoholism and drug use were a positive selective force, as only the ‘fools’ would drink themselves to death. Debates over drug use were also commonly associated with racial discrimination, as many eugenicists saw opiates as a vice of Asian populations.
The Dry Argument
The Eugenicists who subscribed to the Dry argument in the prohibition debate generally argued that alcohol was a dangerous substance which was leading to the decline of civilization and causing the disintegration of the Anglo-Saxon race. They used their understanding of heredity to argue that alcoholism led to degeneration, which was subsequently passed onto future generations. It was clear to doctors at the time that alcohol and drugs damaged the body. However, the true effects on specific body cells were not fully known yet. Eugenicists who supported prohibition argued that alcohol damaged something called the ‘germ plasm’, which they believed was responsible for the transmission of genes to offspring. Damage to these cells, they argued, led to a faulty reproduction cycle and created mental degenerates—who were also prone to further substance abuse. They therefore saw alcohol as a great social evil that led to a continual cycle of degeneration. One of the most vocal proponents of prohibition was the eugenicist Dr. Caleb Saleeby. He often referred to alcohol as the ‘racial poison’ and the root cause of all human defects in the white race. In this way concerns over alcoholism were also intimately tied to concerns over ‘race suicide’ and the decline of the white, Anglo-Saxon population.
Similar arguments were put forth regarding the use of non-medicinal drugs by eugenicists. The number of drugs available for users was limited at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Most commonly used was opium, produced from poppy seeds grown in the poppy fields of India and distributed by British Merchants. The most lucrative markets for the British were in China, which is why the use of opium became quickly associated with Asian populations. In North America, racist attitudes towards immigrants from Asia were a major cause of the illegalization of opiates. Canada passed legislation to criminalize opiate use in 1908 with the Opium Act. In 1911, the Opium and Drugs Act was passed to prohibit cocaine and morphine. Cannabis was criminalized soon after in 1923. Drug use was considered a serious problem to western society, as addictions were on the rise among white populations. This caused a serious fear that drugs were a tool used by non-whites to overthrow the Anglo-Saxon race. Emily Murphy, a stout eugenicist, expressed this fear in her book titled The Black Candle in 1922. She said: “It is hardly credible that the average Chinese peddler has any definite idea in his mind of bringing about the downfall of the white race, his swaying motive being probably that of greed, but in the hands of his superiors, he may become a powerful instrument to this very end” (Murphy, 1922, p. 188).
The Wet Argument
The wet argument took two different approaches. The first approach was taken by scientists who denied that there was any hereditary alcoholism. These scientists argued that alcoholism as a disease was largely created by social factors and that no conclusive study could be done to prove that alcoholism was hereditary. The second approach was taken by scientists who accepted the argument of the Drys. They agreed that alcohol intake led to greater infant death and reproductive problems. Yet they also argued that those children who did survive were actually a superior stock. Dr. Charles Stockard undertook a study of guinea pigs to ‘prove’ this in 1920. He found that the fourth generation of pigs was ‘superior’ to other pigs. Wets even went so far as to point out that alcohol ‘weeded out’ many ‘unwanted’ individuals from the breeding pool. Many wets argued that alcohol was not the cause of mental degeneracy, but a consequence of it. They said that by protecting the alcoholics from their vice, Drys were allowing more degenerates to breed and reproduce. Wet eugenicists therefore saw alcoholism as a positive eugenic force because it killed off the “mediocre people” before they could reproduce.
The debate surrounding prohibition was centred primarily on considerations of eugenics and the improvement of the human species. The two sides of the debate were both concerned with the biological and hereditary nature of alcoholism and its perceived effects on societal well-being. The debate sparked much scientific exploration into the effects of alcohol on reproduction. Studies were undertaken in biology, sociology, and psychiatry. While the greater scientific study of alcoholism seems an important feature of the prohibition debate, it is important to understand that these studies were undertaken with eugenic motives and that alcoholism was used as a powerful tool in the eugenic movement.
Banning, A., & Karl, P. (1910). A preliminary study of extreme alcoholism in adults. Eugenics Laboratory Memoirs, XIV. London: Dulau and Co. Ltd.
Cherrington, E. H. (1925). Alcohol and hereditary. In The Standard Encyclopedia of the Alcohol Problem(pp. 118-124). Westerville, Ohio: American Issue Publishing Company.
Jones, B. (1963). Prohibition and eugenics 1920-1933. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 18, 158-172.
Murphy, E. (1922). The black candle. Toronto: Thomas Allen.
Saleeby, C. (1909). Parenthood and race culture. New York: Moffat Yard and Company.