What Was In This Mysterious "Cure" For Alcoholism?

Illustration for article titled What Was In This Mysterious Cure For Alcoholism?

The most famous medical man dedicated to treating alcoholism was Leslie Keeley, who operated the Keeley Institute and sold Keeley’s Gold Cure. When patients got the facility they were given a nice room, encouragement, and four shots of “gold bichloride” a day. There’s no such thing as gold bichloride.

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It’s natural that the rest of the medical community would be curious to figure out what the shots were. They obtained Keeley’s Gold any way they could. Some samples weren’t hard to get. Keeley sold vials of a version of the cure to be taken orally once a patient got home. But it was the shots that fascinated people. People went into Keeley’s institute undercover as alcoholics and as workers to try to get samples. Many of them got their hands on the stuff, but each analysis yielded different results. Some scientists found traces of alcohol. Some found traces of coca extract. Others found strychnine, willow bark, ammonia, and aloe. Many did find traces of gold salts, but no one could explain why that should work, other than gold giving patients the impression that they were receiving an expensive and high-class treatment. One chemist claimed the shots were just sedatives meant to get patients through withdrawal.

Keeley never revealed what was in his cure. Regardless, Keeley centers stayed popular throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s, and the last one didn’t close down until 1965. Some conspiracy theorists believe that Keeley really had found an effective treatment and that it was suppressed. Most doctors, now, believe that Keeley had a high success rate because his centers gave each person individual attention and encouragement. Seen in this way, he did make a medical breakthrough.

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Image: Johannes Jansson/norden.org.

[Sources: Drugs In America: A Social History by H Wayne Morgan, Alcoholism in America by Sarah W Tracy, Drinking In America by Mark Edward Lender]

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DISCUSSION

*cough* Placebo. *cough*

Honestly, besides the unstable application of self-control, the ~10-20% effective AA technique, a handful of drugs that become emetics when alcohol is ingested, and the (perplexingly illegal) ~95% effective Ibogaine, every other treatment for alcoholism is completely reliant on the placebo effect. And when we’re talking about a snake oil sounding treatment that seems to have a shifting and random recipe, placebo isn’t in any way a stretch.