Absinthism – the fault of doctor Magnan

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Summary

The law forbidding absinthe was voted under the stress of emotion at the beginning of the First World War following a manipulation of the public opinion and of his representatives who were made to believe that absinthe was a beverage which caused a criminal madness. Beyond deep economic, political and moral reasons, the campaign of the abolitionists relied on scientific issues which, nevertheless had been challenged from the outset. In defending the reality of an absinthism different from alcoholism, Valentin Magnan played a decisive role in the campaign. The historical survey shows that he let himself be won by a singular case and thus made the mistake of inference. Then, having discovered the highly convulsive effect of the essential oil of absinthe, he convinced himself that the beverage itself was responsible for specific epilepsy (although the amount of the essential oil in the beverage was tiny). His second mistake seems to have come from his commitment to “médicine expérimentale” through the false evidence displayed by the convulsive fits he so easily obtained with the oil. The passion he put afterwards in his fight against alcoholism, the progression of which was mainly coming from absinthe consumption, as well as the lack of criticism from his deferential circle, did not allow him to ever correct his mistake. The epileptic absinthism was quickly called into question upon clinical and common sense issues, while the reality of a criminal madness did not resist the pioneered epidemiological investigation asked by Georges Clemenceau.

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