You'd Be Headed for 'Jabs'
WSJ December 31, 2007; Page B1
Dr. Leslie E. Keeley would be appalled by how many people are getting drunk -- "inebriated," he would say -- on New Year's Eve. More than a century ago, Dr. Keeley predicted that in the future, "alcohol would be banished from the face of the earth, and drunkenness would be dead."
In the late 19th century, Dr. Keeley claimed he had invented a scientific cure for alcoholism with a 95% success rate. His Keeley Institute in the small town of Dwight, Ill., was the Betty Ford Center of the era. At its peak, the institute treated some 700 patients a day, and "gone to Dwight" became shorthand for checking into rehab. He promised his patients that at the end of their four-week treatment, they would not only be sober, they wouldn't be tempted to drink alcohol again.
His slogan was, "Drunkenness is a disease, and I can cure it."
Dr. Keeley was part visionary, part charlatan, and the combination made him a wealthy man. He franchised his system to more than 100 treatment centers across America and in Canada and England. Five state legislatures in the U.S. agreed to use taxpayers' money to subsidize the $25-a-week cost of treating drunks at Keeley institutes. When Dr. Keeley died in 1900, his estate was valued at $1 million (about $25 million in today's purchasing power).
Many physicians publicly scoffed at Dr. Keeley's theory of alcoholism as a physiological disease that could be permanently eradicated with hypodermic injections and oral tonics whose ingredients he refused to disclose. Although he was frequently beseeched to reveal his secret recipes for the sake of dipsomaniacs who couldn't afford his treatment, he refused. "Only three people in the world know the formula," he said in 1892. He would divulge it only "when the medical profession has agreed that it is a cure for drunkenness, such as I claim it is."
At Dwight, patients lined up four times a day at the "shot tower" to "get their jabs." Their only other duties were to eat well, exercise and get plenty of sleep. Dwight was a dry town, but patients could request shots of whisky from their doctors. Dr. Keeley knew they'd lose their taste for alcohol, and after a few days, the requests ceased.
Dr. Keeley was often asked whether patients should come to Dwight drunk or sober. "Sober!" he would shout, but the majority of patients arrived drunk, and some were transferred from the train station to the institute on stretchers.
Dr. Keeley theorized that alcohol essentially poisons the nerve cells, and "the craving of inebriates for alcohol is no more controllable by the will than is the high temperature of a fever." If the damaged cells were allowed to regenerate, the patient would be exactly the same, mentally and physically, as a person who had never taken a drink. "Stimulants in any form will never again be a necessity, pleasure or temptation to him," he said.
If a Keeley graduate "returned to his cups," it was a conscious choice, not a relapse. "The man returned to his old habits simply because he wanted to," Dr. Keeley explained.
Even if his success rate was much lower than his claims, some patients did leave Dwight sober for life. But not because of the dope, as it was called. The injected drug, which was known as double bichloride of gold, was actually a mixture of low doses of chemicals such as atropine, which could give patients nausea if they drank alcohol. Although it was known as the gold cure, there was no gold in the formula.
But the patients also cut off contact with their families and friends and entered a community of people who also wanted to stop drinking. "The patient is with those who, like himself, are bent upon one end; the patients inspire one another," Dr. Keeley said in 1892. "There is a happy and cordial enthusiasm over a friend's recovery."
The media had their skeptics, such as Joseph Medill, managing editor of the Chicago Tribune. He and Dr. Keeley made a bet. Mr. Medill would send a half-dozen of Chicago's most inveterate Skid Row drunks to Dwight. If they were cured, Mr. Medill would pay their bills. If not, there would be no charge.
Dr. Keeley won. "They went away sots and returned gentlemen," Mr. Medill conceded, giving the Keeley Institute the kind of publicity that can't be bought. But Dr. Keeley also advertised widely in newspapers and magazines, another source of friction between him and the medical profession.
Some newspapers endorsed the cure, blaming relapses on the drinker rather than on the treatment. "The Keeley gold cure may not in all cases prove successful, for it is utterly impossible for the medicine to place brains in a man's head," a Delaware newspaper declared in 1892.
Dr. Keeley's cure survived for a few decades after his death in 1900, but without its chief promoter and defender, its popularity waned. Yet, Dr. Keeley played an important role in convincing Americas that alcoholism was a disease, not a sin or a crime.
In the future, he wrote in 1896, "the reproach of drunkenness will be that it is not cured."