The Lancet on Absinthe: 1868 – 1930

Of particular interest are some very early articles calling into question the underlying assumptions of the work of Magnan and others. The questions raised are often very pertinent even today.

In March 1869 an anonymous correspondent wrote:

“…The question whether absinthe exerts any special action other than that of alcohol in general, has been revived by some experiments by MM. Magnan and Bouchereau in France. These gentlemen placed a guinea-pig under a glass case) with a saucer full of essence of wormwood (which is one of the flavouring matters of absinthe) by his side. Another guinea-pig was similarly shut up with a saucer full of pure alcohol. A cat and a rabbit were respectively enclosed along with a saucer each full of wormwood. The three animals which inhaled the vapours of wormwood experienced, first, excitement, and then epileptiform convulsions. The guinea-pig which merely breathed the fumes of alcohol, first became lively, then simply drunk. Upon these facts it is sought to establish the conclusion that the effects of excessive absinthe drinking are seriously different from those of ordinary alcoholic intemperance.

It is not the first time that we have had to notice discussions on this subject, and to comment upon the inadequacy of the evidence produced in order to prove that absintheism, as met with in the Parisian world, is something different in its nature from chronic alcoholism. We have never denied the possibility of an ultimate discovery of such differences; but we do maintain that as yet no symptoms of absintheism have been described which are not to be met with in many of the victims of simple alcoholic excess. The sleeplessness, the tremor, the hallucinations, the paralysis, and even the epileptiform convulsions, are all of them well-known symptoms which are more or less frequently met with in the alcohol drinkers of England. And it is no sort of answer to these facts to prove, as the recent French observers have done, that the concentrated fumes of wormwood are capable of producing convulsive symptoms which are not produced by inhalation of the fumes of alcohol. Wormwood is, after all, only present in small proportions in absinthe. And the question really before us is, not as to the effects of concentrated inhalations of a simple substance like wormwood, but of the comparative influence of repeated small stomach doses (reaching a high daily total) of an alcohol pure and simple, and of an alcohol flavoured with small quantities of wormwood, and, indeed, of half a dozen other flavouring matters besides.”

There are also several mentions of the adulteration of absinthe, including this one from 1873:

“…Our neighbours, the French, whenever they take up with a new social vice, are pretty sure to invest it with some special features, and to pursue it with an energy that is all their own. Formerly, there can be no question that the French nation was far more free from the vice of alcoholic intemperance than the English; but at present, in Paris and the large cities, at any rate, this scandal is almost as great as in the worst of our towns. Moreover, the favourite liquor which the French choose to tipple has become more and more deadly in its composition, and, consequently, in its effects. Originally the only important ingredient in its composition, besides alcohol, was the essential oil of absinthium, or wormwood; and though, doubtless, this added something to the mischievous effects of the liquor, it would be impossible to trace to it, or to the other comparatively trivial ingredients, the more serious of the special results which are now observed to occur in the victims of absinthe. An analysis recently made at the Conservatoire des Arts shows that the absinthe now contains a large proportion of antimony, a poison which cannot fail to add largely to the irritant effects necessarily produced on the alimentary canal and the liver by constant doses of a concentrated alcoholic liquid. As at present constituted, therefore, and especially when drunk in the disastrous excess now common in Paris, and taken frequently upon an empty stomach, absinthe forma a chronic poison of almost unequalled virulence, both as an irritant to the stomach and bowels, and also as a destroyer of the nervous system. It is probable, we think, that the addition of the antimony was intended to produce the doubtful benefit of rendering the absinthe less intoxicating, for it is notorious that tartar emetic is often slily given to drunkards by their friends to quiet their fury. But it would be impossible to adulterate the liqueur with sufficiently large doses without risking the production of nausea or actual sickness, and the quantity of antimony actually introduced only serves to do all the mischief possible, without any corresponding good.”


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