‘Finish’ Drinking and ‘Secret Cures’: A Snapshot of Alcohol, Psychiatry and Society in Scotland in 1895

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Iain D. Smith, Consultant Addiction Psychiatrist, NHS GGC and Researcher, Centre for History of Medicine, University of Glasgow, UK

“‘Finish’ Drinking and ‘Secret Cures’: A Snapshot of Alcohol, Psychiatry and Society in Scotland in 1895”


Presented to the conference:

Alcohol, Psychiatry and Society

St Anne’s College, Oxford, 29-30 June 2017

See: All ‘Alcohol, Psychiatry and Society’ conference podcasts

Abstract: I will briefly analyse the extensive psychiatric evidence taken by the 1895 Scottish Departmental Committee examining the care of Inebriates.


As a consequence of increasing political interest in the control of alcohol, and in seeking to explain the habit of addiction, medical evidence was sought by parliamentary committees of enquiry for Scotland in the late nineteenth century. This process reached its zenith in the 1895 Departmental Committee. The medical role, in these proceedings, was central, though balancing perspectives came from the legal and penal authorities and representatives of civic society, and, religious and charitable institutions. The background of the Committee members and the witnesses was heavily weighted towards medicine and, in particular, psychiatry. The Report surveyed how habitual drunkards and inebriates were being dealt within the Scotland of the time.


The Scottish medical view of the time seems remarkably uniform. This needs to be read in the context of a campaign to establish Certified Inebriate Reformatories that would stand apart from Asylums for the Insane. In the evidence of Professor W.T. Gairdner, taken on 14 November, 1894 , he deferred to the Chair, Sir Charles Cameron, and praised his earlier attempts to introduce a Bill for civil detention of habitual drunkards in 1879. The testimonies of Dr David Yellowlees (Glasgow) and of Dr Thomas Clouston (Edinburgh) will be highlighted. Both were central figures in shaping the Scottish medical profession’s view on the relations between intemperance and insanity and how these conditions should be treated and managed. Both favoured separate institutions for the inebriate although both were sceptical that American experience with Reformatories for Inebriates would easily translate to the Scottish context. In particular, Clouston urged caution about claims of a fifty percent success rate for inebriates under existing voluntary arrangements in Scotland in retreats that were treating inebriates of a “better class”.


These two psychiatrists were well aware of how prevalent habitual drunkenness was in Scotland at this time, and, therefore, the scale of investment that would be needed to treat inebriates through civil detention. I will show how they portray the relationship between the two categories of “lunacy” and “inebriety”. Yellowlees outlined his theory that a weakened brain can “loosen self control” and lead to drunkenness. Also, he stated that the “vice” of heavy drinking can lead to brain disease. The latter, he said, is the situation in “the vast majority of cases”. Yellowlees also thought there was no other condition that he could name that was “more definitely hereditary than habitual drunkenness”.


I wish to place this “snapshot” of the Departmental Committee sin the context of the dynamics that was playing out both before and after 1895 between temperance ideas, which were particularly strong in “respectable” Scottish society, and also more hopeful for the individual under the sway of alcohol, and the darker and more pessimistic views of psychiatry, which sought to institutionalize increasing numbers of inebriates. Thankfully society at the time constrained psychiatry from such an ambition.



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