David Korostyshevsky

Ph.D. Candidate, History of Science, Technology, and Medicine, University of Minnesota

2020 to 2021
Research Fellow

Disciplining the Drunkard: The Medico-Legal History of Habitual Drunkenness in Nineteenth-Century America

During the nineteenth century, habitual drunkards came to be seen as problematic persons requiring legal and medical attention. Concepts like intemperance and habitual drunkenness were predicated on an early-modern concept of habit that simultaneously possessed moral, religious, clinical meanings. Sermons, temperance literature, medical treatises, popular health guides, and public representations of alcohol demonstrate how religious temperance reformers and physicians defined intemperance as an artificial appetite, a physiological condition of habituation in which the drinker lost the physical capacity for control over drinking. Based on these ideas, civil courts recognized habitual drunkenness as a form of mental unsoundness and assigned drunkards guardians or invalidated their life insurance policies. By denying drunkards the right to property through guardianship or access to the middle class through the financial security of life insurance, civil courts used a combination of medical knowledge, temperance ideologies, and legal doctrine to subject drinkers and drunkenness to governance under private law.