To me, the idea that the COVID vaccines are some untested drugs just being randomly squirted into us is laughable, mostly because I’ve read a lot of medical history. Modern pharmaceutical science might as well be divine magic compared to what it was a century ago. Let’s talk about the completely batshit quest to make a vaccine for alcoholism.
Alcoholism was and remains a huge problem in America, and it’s only getting worse. From 2001 to 2013, the number of Americans who drank rose to 73 percent, an 11 percent increase according to a Journal of the American Medical Association study. For a lot of our history, it’s literally destroyed entire families, particularly a hundred years ago when the new industrialized society sharply divided the options for women to make a living. People rail against Prohibition and the violent tactics of Carrie Nation, but the war against booze was often fought to liberate women from oppression by their drunken husbands.
There was a huge drive to find a cure for alcoholism, and being that medicine was only a few decades removed from leeches the attempts were often comically weird. All kinds of quack nostrums, which were mostly morphine and cocaine, were sold as cures for the inebriate. My personal favorite was the period when people started thinking that water was magic.
The phrase “on the wagon” refers to a water wagon because patients were encouraged to replace drinking alcohol with water. While that’s definitely a good idea, people being people took things too far and up the butt. Enemas were a common treatment for many diseases, as were douches, hot and cold showers, water packs, and just injecting mineral water into people.
Fancy hydrotherapy was expensive, though, so between 1899 and 1903 there was a rush to try out the concept of inoculation. Vaccines had developed for a century at that point, and while the science was crude the link between vaccines and reducing the severity of disease and outbreaks was well-established. There was little scientific debate about whether they worked then, though what types of diseases they could cure were still being figured out.
According to William White’s textbook Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America, two doctors name Sepalier and Dromard were certain that alcoholism could be vaccinated against and they set out to prove it. They believed that antibodies were produced in response to alcohol exposure just as they were for a virus. This isn’t entirely untrue. Alcohol does cause the production of auto-antibodies, however since this is the cause of things like lupus this is actually a bad thing.
The next step to test their theory was to get horses really drunk. White does not detail how exactly one gets a horse drunk, but I bet it was a very exciting night. Once the horse was addicted to alcohol, Sepalier and Dromard would bleed the horse and inject the blood into a sober horse. “which [was] reported to respond with a revulsion for alcohol.”
Now that horses could be tortured into hating booze, humans were the next logical step. A scientist named Evelyn said he had discovered an antibody called esquisine in the horse blood. Alcoholic humans were brought in, and their flesh scarified, which means cut the hell up so that they were bleeding. The horse blood was applied to the wound, hoping that the antibody would enter the bloodstream.
“Human trials using this method proved inconclusive,” says White.
You will obviously notice that we don’t have a vaccine for alcoholism, and the idea was largely abandoned once the rehab model was firmly established. However, they did at least try to solve a massive social problem with science.
So, the next time you think to yourself “Oh, this COVID vaccine seems too new and weird to be safe,” remember that Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson at least aren’t getting horses fucked up and trying to punch their blood into your arm with a knife. That is progress we can all be proud of.