SHAD Interview: “‘A Good Advertisement for Teetotalers’: Polar Explorers and Debates over the Health Effects of Alcohol, 1875–1904,” with Edward Armston-Sheret

Editor’s Note: This week we continue with a special three-post extravaganza of author interviews from the newest issue of the Social History of Alcohol and Drugs. The current issue deals with the topic of radical temperance–the act of not drinking alcohol in booze-soaked eras. Today we hear from Edward Armston-Sheret, a historical geography PhD student at Royal Holloway, University of London, and the author of “’A Good Advertisement for Teetotalers’: Polar Explorers and Debates over the Health Effects of Alcohol, 1875–1904.”

Tell readers a little bit about yourself. 

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Edward Armston-Sheret

I am a PhD student in the Geography Department at Royal Holloway, University of London. My research focuses on nineteenth-century British explorers and how they used their bodies in the field and represented them to domestic audiences.

 What got you interested in drugs (and their history)?

When reading explorers’ accounts, I kept finding them use and talk about alcohol and drugs in ways that seemed totally alien to me. For instance, several polar explores talk about feeding their hypothermic ponies bottles of brandy or whiskey to warm them up (there is photo evidence—Google it!). This showed the degree to which some explorers genuinely thought that alcohol had warming qualities and sparked my curiosity in the subject. 

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As Armston-Sheret’s research shows, it’s probably not wise to actually force your pony to drink alcohol. 

Explain your journal article in a way that your bartender won’t find boring.

Anyone who drinks has probably noticed that alcohol makes you feel warmer. We now understand that this feeling of warmth isn’t the same as the warmth you get from say a fire or warm clothing — and we also know drinking in cold environments can actually be quite dangerous. But this wasn’t always the case. In the early nineteenth century, many thought that alcohol was a useful supply in cold climates — and many explorers took alcohol with their on their journeys. My paper looks at how such polar drinking came under growing scrutiny and how this changed medical understandings of alcohol.

Is this part of a larger project? What else are you working on? 

This paper forms part of my broader PhD project which looks at the role of explorers’ bodies in the credibility of their findings. In this paper, I suggest that the drinking habits of a polar explorer became a make or break issue for explorers’ reputations—affecting domestic perceptions of their success or failure. In the rest of the thesis, I look at how explorers’ bodies became central to the credibility of their findings in other ways. As a side project, I’m also working on a paper looking at medical opinions alcohol and tropical acclimatization in the late-nineteenth century.

Based on your research and experience, what do you see as the frontier or future of the field?

I think there’s much more to say on the relationship between changing ideas about alcohol and questions of travel, globalization, and empire. In particular, I see the potential for some really interesting work looking at how travel to different environments and intercultural encounters shaped domestic attitudes to drink and temperance.

BONUS QUESTION: What scholar, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?

I think it would have to be Karl Marx. It would be fascinating to see what he made of the world today. From what I’ve read, he could also be quite fun on a night out.

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