The History of Alcoholism

Medically Reviewed By Kayla Loibl | Last Edited : November 23, 
| 4 Sources

history of alcoholism

The history of alcoholism only really begins in the nineteenth century.

So were there no alcoholics before this time?

Of course there were but a scientific/systematic connection was never made between excessive drinking and its negative effects.

The concept of alcoholism did not exist.

How alcohol was exactly discovered is a lingering question, however the process of fermentation can be traced back to prehistoric times. 

Throughout history alcohol has been a double-edged sword, valued and reviled in equal measure.

From the ancient Greeks to the therapists of today, the 'gift' of alcohol has tortured them all.

History of Alcoholism
The Ancient World

  • Wine admired by Homer.
  • Greeks write first poems praising alcohol.
  • Wine was used in celebrations often
  • 5 BC Plato stated what he believed to be the correct behavior for drinking. Those under 18 years of age should drink no wine. Wine in moderation for those under 30. No limit for those over 40. It should be noted that life expectancy at this time was 40.
  • Hippocrates made notes of an individual who is believed to have had experienced a hallucination which we now recognize as a sign of alcoholism
however, the negative effects of alcohol were also noted....

  • Drunkenness among the ranks of armies was said to have decided the outcome of battles.
  • Slaves were prohibited from drinking as it affected their work.
  • The collapse of the Roman Empire partly attributed to wine.
  • Greek writings reference alcoholism in both men and women
  • The Greeks also documented that the poor would drink alcohol to cope with their difficulties

The Christian World

  • Drinking excessively was seen as a pagan habit by the early church so was discouraged.

  • Drinking in moderation was seen as good. Alcohol was regarded as a gift from God.
  • As a result, drinking heavily was viewed negatively as it was thought to be abusing a gift from god.

The Medieval World

  • An explosion in viticulture-all over Europe vines were planted and harvested.
  • The monasteries and clergy led the way in wine production-producing and selling huge quantities of wine.
  • Northern Europe saw the appearance of distillation and so stronger drinks: The Scottish made whiskey, the Swedish-aquavitas,the Germans-Schnapps and the Russians-Vodka.
  • There were those who continued to warn of the dangers of alcohol e.g. in 1596 Barthélmy de Lafumas (an advisor to Henry IV) said drinking "...too often ruins homes and families"
  • Simon Seth was an eleventh century physician who discussed the negative impact drinking alcohol can have on a persons liver
  • A Moslem physician, Muhammad Al- Rhazes discussed the negative impact that drinking can have on a persons nervous system

The Enlightenment to the Nineteenth Century

  • A rise in concern about the social harms of drinking. The lower classes were seen as particularly at risk. Unruly drunken behavior became more common.
  • In reaction to increased alcohol consumption groups were formed. Methodism was an offshoot of the Church of England- which forbade distilled drinks. 1841 saw the establishment of the Teetotalism movement. The word teetotal has entered the English language meaning complete abstention from alcohol.
  • As people moved into towns during the industrial revolution so doctors began to see more clearly the negative physical symptoms of alcoholism.
  • Swedish Physician Magnus Huss wrote “the Chronic Alcoholism” which viewed alcoholism as a disease that had the same symptoms despite a persons income and social status.
  • Benjamin Rush wrote about observations he made of Civil War Soldiers drinking. This was considered the first American writing about alcoholism as problem

Birth of a Concept, Alcoholism

  • Magnuss Huss a Swedish physician classified systematically the damage that excessive alcohol consumption caused in his work Alcoholismus Chronicus. A disease was born and so begins the 'official' history of alcoholism.
  • Obviously he was not the first to see the connection but was the first to establish it conclusively and scientifically.

The World Wars

  • One of the consequences of World War 1 was that many men from all around the world came together. Doctors established by looking at cases of alcoholism among soldiers that it wasn't the type of alcohol drunk that damaged health but the amount.
  • Yet still today many think only spirits cause alcoholism and that beer is is relatively harmless.

Prohibition in the U.S.

  • A watershed in the history of alcoholism.
  • In the 19th Century a surplus of corn led to the mass production of whiskey in the USA.
  • This caused a major drinking problem in the USA.
  • Alcohol Prohibition was introduced (1919-1933) - which banned the manufacture and sale of alcohol throughout the USA.
  • Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in 1926
  • A massive failure. Resulted in a huge rise in organized crime and a black market in alcohol. (Much like the prohibition of many drugs today.) A disaster and repealed in 1933.

The Twentieth Century

  • Research interest in alcoholism and alcoholism treatment grew
  • National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependance was founded
  • The disease concept of alcoholism begins to be accepted throughout the United States by medical and mental health professionals
  • American Medical Associated identified alcoholism as treatable
  • The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Addiction was developed. This organization focused on alcohol related research
  • The stigma associated with alcoholism grows after social movements such as the War on Drugs introduced by the Reagan Administration in the United States
  • The future will no doubt bring new ways of treating alcoholism. As you read this there are countless alcoholism treatment-centers using all kinds of different therapies.
  • Everyday there are breakthroughs particularly in the area of alcoholism medication. New and exciting drugs such as nalmefene are being developed, a drug that brings the hope of an alcoholism cure ever closer.
As time goes on, there is no doubt that the interest in addictions and addiction treatment will grow within the research community. This should be viewed as a gain, as it would likely bring about new interventions and/or support for existing interventions that are not heavily researched. It should also be noted that as time goes on, there appears to be a decrease in the stigma associated with alcoholism.

There is no denying that there is still a stigma associated with alcohol addiction, however with the increase of knowledge regarding alcoholism as a disease, more and more people have a better understanding of alcoholism.

If you or someone close to you wants help and advice on quitting drinking then take a look at the following pages:

Get the Help You Need!

If you are struggling overcoming alcoholism, get the help you need now. Reach out to a dedicated treatment provider today.

Lead Writer/Reviewer : Kayla Loibl

Licensed Medical Health Professional 


I am a Mental Health Counselor who is licensed in both New York (LMHC) and North Carolina (LCMHC). I have been working in the Mental Health field since 2015. I have worked in a residential setting, an outpatient program and an inpatient addictions program. I began working in Long Island, NY and then in Guelph, Ontario after moving to Canada. Read More


Research article that discussed the history of alcohol use and abuse:2822.full.pdf (

Research article that discusses the history of alcohol use, alcoholism and treatment:(PDF) Alcohol history (

Time line of the history of alcohol:  History | Center of Alcohol & Substance Use Studies (

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