Magic Cures and their Discontents: The Belladonna Treatment in the Early Twentieth-Century

Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes from contributing editor Jordan Mylet. Mylet is a doctoral candidate in history at the University of California, San Diego. 

When Bill Wilson had the “spiritual awakening” at the upscale Charles B. Towns Hospital in New York City that would inspire the founding and program of Alcoholics Anonymous, he probably didn’t know the strange, at times sinister, history of the treatment that made his transcendent experience possible.

What he received was the Towns Hospital’s version of the belladonna treatment, which had emerged as a cutting-edge addiction treatment in 1900 and became the dominant method in public and private hospitals by the 1920s. Per its name, the treatment was derived from alkaloids of the belladonna and henbane plants in the nightshade family, which had been used for millennia as poison, cosmetic enhancement, and hallucinogen. They were known to be potent, psychoactive, and potentially fatal. As the belladonna treatment (or “hyoscine cure”) spread in American medical practice, physicians and medical researchers engaged in an unwieldy process of trial and error to control the volatile qualities of the drug mixture. In practice, this meant that poor addicts and alcoholics during the first decades of the twentieth century encountered a far more dangerous version of the belladonna treatment. The course of the hyoscine cure reveals the long history of the United States’ two-tiered addiction treatment (and healthcare) system, and the at times wildly experimental character of medicine and pharmacology in the early twentieth century, the same era in which the nation’s narcotics control laws were developed.

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