Magnan, Science and Pseudoscience

Both the serious and the populist medical literature of the day demonized absinthe, in many cases laying the ground for the campaigns of the anti-absinthe temperance movement.
The leading French psychiatrist of his generation, Dr. Valentin Magnan was responsible for the clinical definition of absinthism as a particular syndrome apart from alcoholism. His views were enormously influential in France, and were constantly cited by the prohibitionist movement. He believed chronic abuse of absinthe resulted not only in epilepsy and insanity, but in degenerative birth defects that could be passed down three or four generations.

Absinthe was originally fairly expensive, and largely a drink of the upper-middle classes. However, by the second half of the nineteenth century it had fallen dramatically in price, both because of increasing economies of scale in its production, and because most producers had switched from grape alcohol to far cheaper grain and beet alcohols. At the same time the number of brands exploded, with many catering for the very cheapest end of the market.

Absinthe became increasingly popular amongst all classes of French society, and began to displace wine as the standard drink of the French working class. During this period the French wine industry was struggling with the crippling effects of both oidium (a kind of mildew) and phylloxera (an incurable aphid infestation deadly to vines). Almost all the French national vineyard had to be replanted, a process that took decades and resulted in a prolonged shortage of wine, and a consequent rise in wine prices.

Alcoholism and Degeneracy
An important English language paper presented by Magnan at the 1912 London Eugenics Conference includes a detailed description of the symptoms of absinthism.

Increasingly, absinthe was the affordable, and far more alcoholic, alternative to wine. This was both a major reason for its enormous popularity, and ultimately the root cause of its downfall. When the wine industry began to recover in the last decades of the nineteenth century, the politically well-connected grape growers, seeking to recover the market share they had lost, began to agitate for the prohibition of what they termed “unnatural” products like absinthe.

The adulteration of spirits was also a huge problem worldwide from the middle of the eighteenth century when industrially made drinks like gin were first developed in England, right up to the implementation of accurate scientific testing and regulation at the beginning of the twentieth century.

During the late 19th & early 20th centuries France, together with many western countries, was under pressure from various temperance movements and their constituents to curb alcohol consumption on a governmental level, as it was seen to morally corrupt its citizens. In the midst of this prohibitionist excitement, fanned by the chief French temperance organisation, the Ligue National Contre L’Alcoolisme (or the Croix Bleue as it was colloquially known), the word absinthism came to lose its specific meaning. Absinthism and alcoholism were confused, and an alcoholic was simply deemed an “absinthe drinker”.

This confusion of meaning seems to have been deliberately encouraged by the prohibitionist movement. Wine was believed to be healthy and natural, since it came from the land and was a time-honoured tradition, not to mention a major source of revenue. Absinthe, however, was made with industrial alcohol, and was moreover by far the most alcoholic of all liquors. It’s not surprising, that by the 1890’s, absinthe had become the primary target for the French temperance movement.

In 1907 the Croix Bleue gathered 400 000 signatures on a petition which declared:
“Absinthe makes you crazy and criminal, provokes epilepsy and tuberculosis, and has killed thousands of French people. It makes a ferocious beast of man, a martyr of woman, and a degenerate of the infant, it disorganizes and ruins the family and menaces the future of the country.”

This narrow focus on absinthe was of course entirely in the interests of the powerful wine industry lobby. After all, under the growing threat of Prohibition, how better to draw attention away from your own alcoholic product –wine – than to make people believe that it is the healthy, natural exception to the “bad” rule? After a series of temperance rallies in Paris, the June 15th 1907 headline of Le Matin read: “Tous pour le vin contre l’absinthe”. The leading anti-absinthe firebrand in the Chamber of Deputies, Henri Schmidt, told the assembly that studies “proved” that absinthe was 246 times more likely to cause insanity than wine, and was three times more guilty than other distilled alcohols like cognac. Schmidt went on to argue:

“The real characteristic of absinthe is that it leads straight to the madhouse or the courthouse. It is truly ‘madness in a bottle’ and no habitual drinker can claim that he will not become a criminal.”

A signed presentation copy of Recherches sur Les Centres Nerveux by Dr Valentin Magnan, the chief physician at the asylum of Sainte-Anne in Paris. Vol I was published in 1876, and Vol II almost two decades later in 1893.

Thèse pour le Doctorat en Médecine, Presentée et Soutenue le 9 Décembre 1859, Par A. Auguste MotetConsiderations Générales sur l’Alcoolisme, et plus particulièrement des Effects Toxiques Produits sur l’Homme par la Liqueur d’Absinthe.An extremely early work on the medical effects of absinthe, predating most of Magnan’s researches.

An 1871 paper by Magnan Étude Expérimentale et Clinique sur l’Alcoolisme – Alcool et Absinthe, Épilepsie Absinthique 46 pages. Originally published in the Recueil de Médecine Vétérinaire.

De L’Alcoolisme Des diverses formes du délire alcoolique et de leur traitment Magnan’s 1874 book had extensive chapters on the effects of absinthe on laboratory animals, and the effects of absinthe on habitual drinkers.

A Contribution to the Study of Descending Degenerations in the Brain and Spinal Cord, and of the Seat of Origin and Paths of Conduction of the Fits in Absinthe Epilepsy, by Rubert Boyce, Professor of Pathology, University College, Liverpool. Royal Society, 1895. The author, drawing on Magnan’s work in France, conducted a series of gruesome experiments on cats, investigating the effects on their brain function of exposure to absinthe.

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.

La Médecine Universelle 1891. “Absinthe produces drunken rages, normal alcohol produces calm drunkenness.”