Absinthism

~ The "Long Term Effects of Drinking Absinthe" ? ~

In the 1860’s concern was aroused for the first time over the effect of absinthe drinking. Chronic use of absinthe was claimed to produce a syndrome, called absinthism, which was characterized by addiction, hyperexcitability, epileptic fits and hallucinations. This was first described in a series of influential papers by Dr. Valentin Magnan, the chief physician at the asylum of Sainte-Anne in Paris. Magnan wrote:

“In absinthism, the hallucinating delirium is most active, most terrifying, sometimes provoking reactions of an extremely violent and dangerous nature. Another more grave syndrome accompanies this: all of a sudden the absinthist cries out, pales, loses consciousness and falls; the features contract, the jaws clench, the pupils dilate, the eyes roll up, the limbs stiffen, a jet of urine escapes, gas and waste material are brusquely expulsed. In just a few seconds the face becomes contorted, the limbs twitch, the eyes are strongly convulsed, the jaws gnash and the tongue projected between the teeth is badly gnawed; a bloody saliva covers the lip, the face grows red, becomes purplish, swollen, the eyes are bulging, tearful, the respiration is loud, then the movements cease, the whole body relaxes, the sphincter releases, the evacuations soil the sick man. Suddenly he lifts his head and casts his eyes around him with a look of bewilderment. Coming to himself after awhile, he doesn’t remember one thing that has happened.”

Magnan’s research was fundamentally flawed. His experiments involved exposing small animals to large quantities of pure wormwood essence, rather than to commercially produced absinthe, which contains only a relatively small percentage of actual essence. (In French, crucially, the same word, absinthe, is used for both the essence and the drink, which meant that extracts from Magnan’s and other scientists works could be quoted directly by anti-absinthe prohibitionists in order to demonize the drink).

A sceptical English scientist writing in The Lancet, in 1869, described how:

“the question whether absinthe exerts any special action other than that of alcohol in general, has been revived by some experiments by Monsieurs Magnan and Bouchereau in France.”
The experiments placed animals such as guinea pigs in tightly sealed glass jars, some with a saucer of pure wormwood essence, others with one of alcohol. The animals which inhaled wormwood vapours experienced “epileptiform convulsions”, those exposed only to alcohol fumes merely became lively and drunk.

The Lancet’s anonymous correspondent continued:

“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 absinthism, 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 absinthism have been described which are not to be met with in many of the victims of simple alcoholic excess.”

He went on to remark that the insomnia, trembling, hallucinations, paralysis and convulsions identified by Magnan as typical of absinthism were all equally well known symptoms frequently met with in English alcoholics. He correctly pointed out that the fact that concentrated fumes of wormwood were peculiarly toxic was evidence of little, as wormwood is present in only small proportions in absinthe, and no absinthe drinker drinks, or inhales, concentrated wormwood.

Magnan, undeterred by this criticism, continued his research on the same lines. He made much of the undeniably true observation that many of the most desperate alcoholics encountered in Parisian hospitals were habitual absinthe drinkers. He attributed their degeneration specifically to the absinthe they were drinking, rather than even considering the alternative and far more likely explanation that, in common with hard-core alcoholics the world over, they were simply seeking out the cheapest and strongest spirit available to them. In late nineteenth century France this was absinthe, just as it had been gin from the eighteenth century onwards in England.

Although the science behind this anti-absinthe research was often obviously faulty, it gained general acceptance in France and was reported as fact in the popular press of the day. Further aggravating matters was the then widely held belief in scientific circles, that not just the consequences of alcoholism were hereditary – foetal alcohol syndrome, mental retardation and birth defects – but alcoholism itself. In other words, an alcoholic father would sire alcoholic children and grandchildren, with each generation sinking deeper into despair and depravity. Absinthism was regarded as the most dangerous and virulent form of alcoholism, and the most likely to be passed down from father to son.

It now seems clear that the symptoms of ‘absinthism’ were due primarily to the effects of the alcohol itself, and also perhaps to the many sometimes extremely dangerous chemical adulterants used in cheap absinthes of the time. Well-made absinthes used chlorophyllic colouration from herbs to achieve their characteristic green colour. This however was an expensive and difficult to control process, so unscrupulous low cost producers substituted chemicals such as copper sulphate to achieve the same effect. Antimony chloride – another highly poisonous substance – was also used to help the drink become cloudy when water was added.


Considérations sur l’absinthisme Thèse présentée et publiquement soutenue à la Faculté de Médecine de Montpellier, le 10 Juillet 1880.Par Marius Maunier Numerous experiments with salamanders, birds, guinea pigs, dogs and monkeys are described, in an attempt to clearly differentiate between ordinary alcoholism and absinthism.

Victims of Absinthe and Absinthism

Central to the centuries old demonization of absinthe – and, it must be said, also to its outlaw romance – is the long roll call of “victims of absinthe.”

Four page letter written on January 6th, 1857 by Antoine Jean Duclaux (1783 – 1868), a well known landscape artist from Montpellier. He describes the death in his hotel of a young Lyonnaise, M. Guillet, at the age of just 29, a heavy smoker and absinthe drinker. This is one of the earliest recorded examples of a death purportedly related to excessive absinthe consumption.