‘Disciples of Asclepius ‘or ‘Advocates of Hermes’? Greek psychiatrists and alcohol at the turn of the twentieth century

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Konstantinos Gkotsinas, History, University of Crete, Rethymnon, Greece

“ ‘Disciples of Asclepius ‘or ‘Advocates of Hermes’? Greek psychiatrists and alcohol at the turn of the twentieth century”

 

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: The programme of the Second Pan-Hellenic Medical Conference (Athens, 1903) included a session on “alcohol-induced diseases in Greece”. While most speakers denounced the health damages caused by alcohol use, the condemnations were not unanimous. In the discussion that followed, a neurologist stated that alcohol “is not a poison, but a nutritional element”, provoking thus the indignant reaction of a colleague: “we did not gather here as merchants, but as doctors with one and only holy and great duty: to enlighten society as disciples of Asclepius and not as advocates of Hermes, the God of profit”. The turn of the twentieth century was in many respects a transitional period for the Greek society in general and concerning alcohol in particular: seeking additional revenues, the Greek state imposed taxes on alcohol consumption, the local wine and spirits industry was promoted to absorb the raisin production surplus, while new consumption trends begun spreading next to existent practices and medical uses (e.g. administration of cognac during the typhus epidemic of 1881). As these transformations coincided with the rise, gradual emancipation, and institutionalization of psychiatry, the issue of alcohol proved to be a favourite subject of Greek psychiatrists, offering them an opportunity to assert their own scientific expertise.

 

This paper will discuss the main arguments of alcohol proponents and temperance advocates within the psychiatric profession, as they were expressed in scientific treatises, specialized journals, and the proceedings of medical conferences of the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century. In doing so, it will look into factors that contributed in shaping these contrasting attitudes (cultural setting, foreign academic influences or the rise of alcohol-related psychiatric internments), as well as reasons why the views of the “disciples of Asclepius” failed to have an impact on public policies.

 

 

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