Historical Figures and Addiction

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Historical Figures and Addiction

It’s often easy to look at life as though it has always been the way it is now, but once upon a time, addiction wasn’t as widely recognized as a disease as it is today. Over the years, overdose-related deaths and the negative effect addiction has had on society have brought awareness to an otherwise shrouded issue.

Today, the number of people abusing drugs and alcohol is staggering. In 2013, approximately 24.6 million Americans over the age of 11 were current illicit drug users, meaning they’d used an illicit drug within the month prior to being surveyed.[1] In 2012, the year prior, more than 2.8 million people started using illicit drugs for the first time.[2] The picture of alcoholism is no better, with 17.6 million Americans being dependent on or abusers of alcohol.[3]

Notably Addicted

A large number of historical figures have battled addiction, some of them losing the battle altogether and paying the ultimate price with their lives. In 2010, around 38,329 people died from drug overdose-related deaths and another 25,692 from alcohol-induced causes in the US.[4]


Emily Dickinson

The famed poet was rumored to have had an alcohol abuse problem, but no confirmation of this was ever made. In some respects, the depth of depression she was known to paint a picture of in her work could imply mental illness or alcohol-induced depression. Since neither came to be speculated until after her 1886 death, the alleged substance abuse issue left a far lighter footprint on her image than her work, which continues to be popular with every generation.

Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath was well-known for her poetry, which features themes of depression and substance abuse. Much of her work painted an anecdotal picture of her life and left many to speculate whether the substance abuse habits she wrote about were as factual as her struggles with a chronically melancholy outlook. Plath took antidepressants to treat her issues, and her husband has publicly blamed her potential misuse of them for her eventual death. There has been no official confirmation of substance abuse by Plath, but speculation is wide that she was an alcoholic. Not surprisingly, Plath suffered from manic depression, now recognized as bipolar disorder.[5]

The poet committed suicide via gas from the kitchen stove in 1963 at the young age of 30. Since her death came only a year after having her infant son, there has been suspicion of postpartum depression as well. Nicholas Hughes, son of Sylvia, committed suicide in 2009 — a sufferer of the same depression his mother battled.[6] Plath is often remembered for the turmoil that plagued her death and the claims that her husband, Ted Hughes, was to blame due to an extramarital affair on his part.


Elvis Presley

Presley’s addiction woes led to a downfall in his career, weight gain that diminished the attention he’d received for his charming looks over the years, and the loss of interpersonal relationships. The 42-year-old star was found dead of no apparent cause on his bathroom floor in August of 1977, but toxicology reports would later note the presence of 14 drugs in his system, including codeine, morphine, diazepam, and several barbiturates.[7]

While the rock ‘n’ roll superstar’s family did their best to cover this up, drug abuse was no surprise to the King’s fans who noted his declining health and erratic behavior in his final years. During that time, his public imagine somewhat deteriorated, though his music is still considered legendary.

Adolf Hitler und Eva Braun auf dem Berghof

Adolf Hitler

A 2014 documentary detailed aspects of Hitler’s day-to-day life that have been otherwise hush in the years since his reign. Adolf reportedly consumed a cocktail of some 74 substances, including morphine, methamphetamines and barbiturates.[8] The opinions of well-respected psychotherapists have painted a potentially authentic picture of Hilter as an inhuman individual bordering on psychosis, narcissism, and masochism, and possibly suffering from schizophrenia.[9] Regarding the latter, about 47 percent of all schizophrenics have a substance use problem, too.[10]


Marilyn Monroe

Chloral hydrate and barbiturates were at the root of the famous sex symbol’s suicide in 1962.[11] At just 36 years old, Norma Jean Mortensen, better known as Marilyn Monroe, reportedly suffered from bipolar disorder and borderline personality disorder, and she was known to misuse medications prescribed for the treatment of such.

In one study of 479 patients with borderline personality disorder, 275 of them met the criteria for a substance use disorder.[12] Several cover-ups and conspiracy theories shrouded the star’s death.


Benjamin Franklin

Franklin lived to the ripe old age of 84 and did so while frequently abusing laudanum — an opiate and alcohol mixture used in the treatment of pain and ailments.[13] Despite being addicted to the substance, it wasn’t an issue for the public. In those times, habitual use of the tonic wasn’t viewed as a major problem. Thus, Ben’s image never suffered.


Sigmund Freud

Praised still for his work in the psychoanalytical field, Freud was an avid fan of cocaine.[14] He came to be addicted through his own research that began in 1894 on the coca plant’s abilities as a treatment mechanism for mental health ailments.[15] Supposedly, he stopped using the drug after he began to suffer health effects a couple years later.


Vincent Van Gogh

The prized artist wasn’t a stranger to a depressed mood. Some have theorized that Van Gogh’s mental health issues were drug-induced. While it’s possible, data points to an underlying condition like manic depression leading him to abuse absinthe and Digitalis[16] — a medicine he was prescribed for the treatment of epilepsy.[17] The artist met an untimely fate in 1890 due to suicide.


Charles Dickens

A man who frequented opium dens — an inspiration for future books — the literary genius was known to have suffered from depression. While it’s impossible to know for sure which was the cause of the other, most accounts of the author’s life are saddening at best and describe a troubled childhood laced with trauma. Thus, friends often reported the author’s depressive states as being present prior to his fame and worsening at the onset of new literary works in progress, which would develop into mania as he completed them, raising a red flag for suspicion of bipolar disorder.[18]


Thomas Edison

Another fan of cocaine, Edison used his favorite substance in an elixir form, as did many in his time. Generally, he would drink wine that was laced with cocaine. Interestingly, the incandescent light bulb inventor is now said to have had both attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and dyslexia.


Robin Williams

The comedian’s fans were shocked when the news of his suicide broke in 2014. Williams was open about his struggle with cocaine and alcohol abuse in the 1980s, which came to a voluntary, screeching halt after his friend and fellow comedian actor John Belushi lost his life in an overdose of heroin and cocaine in 1982.[19] However, Williams would relapse some 20 years later and return to a battle with alcohol that would land him in rehab more than once in the years that followed.

It has been reported that Williams suffered from both bipolar disorder and depression. Up to 60 percent of people with bipolar disorder will struggle with substance abuse in their lifetimes.

Now and Then

While there have always been substance abuse fads that have come and gone, certain drugs have stood the test of time. People have been abusing heroin since the late 1800s.[20] The rate of its abuse has only increased steadily over the years. By 2009, 605,000 Americans aged 11 and older reported using the drug sometime the previous year.[21]

Similarly, cocaine was wildly abused in the 1800s, but continues to be abused today, with 1.9 million people being current cocaine users in 2008.[22] The raw ingredients of many prescription drugs have been around for centuries, but they’ve continually been growing in popularity. Non-medical lifetime use of prescription drugs is a reality for 52 million US citizens aged 12 or older.[23] Alcohol has likely been the most constant substance of abuse over time.

In addition, many of the drugs that people once abused were legal when they were using them. Meth was a drug doctors once recommended to their patients to lift depression. Heroin was born as a substitute for morphine in 1874 and served as a cough remedy.[24] The byproduct of an accident, LSD was legal until 1967.[25]

1922_bottled_Coca-Cola_adCocaine was promoted by Sigmund Freud himself as a medicine for sexual impotence and depression in the late 1800s.[26] A few short years later, the drug made its way into the ever-popular Coca-Cola beverage.

Of course, we’ve seen marijuana go from being unrestricted to tightly controlled, and now laws are loosening regarding the plant-based drug. It does seem the millennial generation is the most supportive of these legalization efforts, with 63 percent reportedly being in favor of legalization in 2014.[27]

The reasons why someone abuses drugs or alcohol vary from one person to the next and always have. Many people are inclined to believe stereotypes that only criminals and those in poverty are plagued by addiction. There are also those who think addiction is a choice that substance abusers make. Quite the contrary, addiction isn’t a problem that is specific to certain populations or demographics. While the initial stages of drug or alcohol abuse involve choice, resolving an addiction is not a matter of determination or willpower.

The likelihood of becoming addicted to a substance depends largely on the substance itself. For example, only 9-10 percent of marijuana users become dependent, 15 percent of alcohol users end up as alcoholics, 15-20 percent of cocaine users turn into addicts, and 23-25 percent of heroin users develop addiction.[28]

Addiction Targets Everyone

The symptoms of addiction include:

  • An inability to cut back or stop using
  • Withdrawal sets in when use is cessated
  • A preoccupation with maintaining an adequate supply of the substance
  • Increased risky behavior when under the influence
  • Opting out of social engagements and other activities once enjoyed to partake in substance abuse instead
  • Feeling like you can’t function or operate well without the substance anymore
  • Hiding your substance use/abuse
  • Interpersonal relationship issues because of your substance use
  • Financial or legal ramifications have stemmed from your substance use issues[29]

The History of Treatment

Treatment for substance abuse and addiction has come a long way since the days of lobotomy and sterilization. At one point in time, there was even an attempt to vaccinate alcoholics against their addiction that stemmed from experimentations with horses.[30] Needless to say, the protocol wasn’t effective in treating alcohol dependence. Treatment options also included:

  • Hot air boxes
  • Aversion therapy (still used today)
  • The Keeley Cure
  • Serum therapy

Hot air boxes were similar to the light boxes we use today to treat patients suffering from seasonal affective disorder — something a reported 10 million Americans deal with annually.[31] Aversion therapy still exists in some forms, such as the use of Antabuse to deter drinking by inflicting undesirable side effects after consumption of the substance.

The Keeley Cure consisted of injecting alcoholics with a “double chloride” solution, but the mixture also contained potentially toxic components such as ammonia and cocaine and was far from safe. After reports of side effects ranging from insanity to fatality, it was viewed as ineffective and unsafe.[32]

512px-Turning_the_Mind_Inside_Out_Saturday_Evening_Post_24_May_1941_a_detail_1Sterilization was still in effect and legislatively encouraged in several states during the early to mid-1900s as a way to inhibit procreation among people suffering from alcoholism — a condition that was thought to be hereditary and worsening with each generation.[33]

Research has revealed that alcoholism certainly has a genetic link. Children of alcoholics are at a fourfold increased risk of developing the disease themselves.[34]

Serum therapy involved the deliberate act of creating blisters on a patient’s abdomen and then removing fluid from them with a syringe that would then be injected into the patient’s arm. As painful as it sounds, this process was repeated several times a day for up to a week’s time in an effort to cure drug addiction.

The mid-1900s also brought the advent of the frontal lobotomy to the world of addiction treatment. It consisted of resection of the front lobes of the brain but never proved to be effective.

Today, there are thousands of facilities treating substance abuse, and many programs treat mental health disorders, as well.[35] The first facility for mental health treatment opened in 1407 in Spain, and treatment has progressed significantly over the centuries.[36]


The stigma surrounding addiction has always existed. In the 1500s, addiction was as closely aligned with “gluttony, obstinacy, and even too much reading” as it can be with poverty and laziness today. As the 1800s rolled around, alcoholism was viewed as the primary form of addiction and associated with a lack of morals and poor parenting skills. As legal ramifications have been imposed over the years and once-legal substances have been banned, those who still persisted in using them have often been viewed as criminals. All of these factors and more started and perpetuated the stigma against addiction that continues to exist today.

L0026693 A man diagnosed as suffering from melancholia with strong suAddiction often goes hand in hand with mental illness. Around 37 percent of alcoholics and 53 percent of drug addicts are suffering from serious mental health disorders.[37] To date, we still know very little about the workings of the mind and how emotions and mental stability weigh into addiction. Nor do we fully understand what makes one mentally ill person gravitate toward addiction while another abstains, but the same can be said for people without any mental illness.

When people like Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson were in their heyday, terms like PTSD and PMDD didn’t even exist yet. Today, many suspicions surround past cases of addiction that may point toward mental health disorders as a cause. Case in point, while we’ll never know for sure, many believe Dickinson may have suffered from PTSD long before we knew what it was.[38] It is estimated that 7.8 percent of all American people will have PTSD at some point in their lives.[39]

Even though substance abuse treatment was available for many of these historical figures, mental health screening and treatment weren’t part of addiction treatment for many years. Into the 1400s, the typical behaviors of a mentally ill person were viewed as indicative of demonic possession.[40] Just 200 years ago, you could find patients suffering from mental illness chained to their beds in hospitals and institutions with little hope for a better quality of life.

Dix-Dorothea-LOCThe real changes came in the 1800s on the heels of Dorothea Dix and Emil Kraepelin. Dix was an advocate for the mentally ill, rumored to be a sufferer herself, and fought for improved living conditions for the mentally ill community.[41] Kraepelin was a German psychiatrist who differentiated between manic depression and schizophrenia.[42]

As deinstitutionalization came about in the 1950s and 1960s following President Truman’s signing of the National Mental Health Act in 1946, research took off in pursuit of medication and treatment mechanisms for the mentally ill population — a feat that continues to grow and prosper today. The failure of deinstitutionalization is thought to be one of the primary factors in the now prevalent and escalating 1.8 million mentally ill individuals who are going without treatment.[43] In years gone by, the mentally ill population was kept in safeguarded facilities where they were consequently separated from the generation population, likely only aiding in the growing perception that people with mental illness are unstable, unsafe, and unworthy of human compassion and interaction. While deinstitutionalization improved the lives of those suffering from less serious mental health issues, it was not as successful for those dealing with more severe mental health issues.

Comprehensive Treatment

The importance of treating mental illness and addiction side by side cannot be stressed enough. When a patient enters rehab and completes detox and treatment for their substance abuse problems, but an undiagnosed mental health disorder is left untreated, they are being set up for failure. This pattern of poor treatment protocols repeated itself time and time again in the past. It has only been in the past two or three decades that we have really begun to give mental health the attention it deserves, and we’re still a long way from where things need to be. Per 2013 data, 37.8 percent of the 20.3 million America adults who had a substance use disorder in the preceding year also had a mental health disorder.[44]

Without treatment, mental health disorders fester and often worsen, and the patient is discharged from rehab having the same symptoms of mental illness present that could very likely have been what led them to abuse drugs or alcohol in the first place. Some research points toward increased psychiatry severity of symptoms being correlated with an increased chance of a poor treatment outcome. One study notes that those with three or four symptoms had a 30 percent chance of fully completing detox on an outpatient basis, whereas those presenting with no symptoms had a 95 percent chance.[45]

Getting Help Now

While some notable members of society may have lost the battle with addiction and even mental illness in some cases, that doesn’t have to be you. There are more treatment options for both issues today than there ever have been before. Today, you could take advantage of all that modern medical science has to offer and beat the very same things that plagued some of the greatest minds in history.


[1]Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Summary of National Findings.” (2013). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[2]DrugFacts: Nationwide Trends.” (January 2014). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[3]Alcohol & Drug Information.” (n.d.). National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[4]Annual Causes of Death in the United States.” (n.d.). DrugWarFacts.org. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[5] Cooper, B. (June 2003). “Sylvia Plath and the depression continuum.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[6] Mail Foreign Service. (23 March 2009). “Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath’s son commits suicide, 46 years after she gassed herself.” Daily Mail. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[7] Bloomquist, M. (23 Oct 2008). “Bipolar and Addiction: The Dual Diagnosis.” Everyday Health. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[8] Tharoor, I. (14 Oct 2014). “High Hitler: Nazi leader was a meth addict, says new documentary.” The Washington Post. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[9] Hyland, P., Boduszek, D. & Kielkiewicz, K. (2011). “A Psycho-Historical Analysis of Adolf Hitler: The Role of Personality, Psychopathology, and Development.” Psychology and Society. Vol. 4, No. 2. Pp. 58 – 63. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[10] Yoffee, L. (26 Mar 2009). “Schizophrenia and Substance Abuse.” Everyday Health. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[11] Bloomquist, M. (23 Oct 2008). “Bipolar and Addiction: The Dual Diagnosis.” Everyday Health. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[12] Trull, T., Sher, K., Minks-Brown, C., Durbin, J. & Burr, R. (2000). “Borderline Personality Disorder and Substance Use Disorders: A Review and Integration.” Clinical Psychology Review. Vol. 20, No. 2. Pp. 235 – 253. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[13] Raymond, A. (29 Feb 2009). “10 People You Probably Didn’t Know Were Addicts.” The Fix. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[14] Nuland, S. (21 July 2011). “Sigmund Freud’s Cocaine Years.” The New York Times. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[15]How a Young Sigmund Freud Researched & Got Addicted to Cocaine, the New ‘Miracle Drug,’ in 1894.” (n.d.). Open Culture. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[16] Isenberg, B. (30 Nov 1988). “Did Absinthe Make Van Gogh’s Mind Wander?.” The Los Angeles Times. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[17]5 Famous and Iconic Drug Users That Inspired the World.” (11 May 2012). Finer Minds. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[18] Benjamin, K. (11 Sept 2012). “11 Historical Geniuses and Their Possible Mental Disorders.” Mental Floss. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[19] Zara, C. (11 Aug 2014). “Robin Williams Drug Problems: Alcohol, Cocaine Addiction Punctuated Actor’s Early Career.” International Business Times. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[20] Scott, I. (6 June 1998). “Heroin: A Hundred-Year Habit.” History Today. Vol. 48, Issue 6. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[21] Dee, S. (2013). “Drugs Are Great.” Google Books. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[22]What is the scope of cocaine use in the United States?.” (Sept 2010). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[23]Popping Pills: Prescription Drug Abuse in America.” (Jan 2014). National Institute on Drug Abuse. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[24]10 Illegal Drugs That Were Once Legal.” (13 Oct 2011). Business Pundit. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[25]LSD: A Short History.” (n.d.). Foundation for a Drug-Free World. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[26]Cocaine: A Short History.” (n.d.). Foundation for a Drug-Free World. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[27] Motel, S. (5 Nov 2014). “6 Facts about Marijuana.” Pew Research Center. Accessed February 17, 2015.

[28] Szalavitz, M. (19 Oct 2010). “Is Marijuana Addictive? It Depends How You Define Addiction.TIME Magazine. Accessed February 18, 2015.

[29] Nordqvist, C. (March 2009). “What Are The Signs And Symptoms of Addiction?” Medical News Today. Accessed February 18, 2015.

[30] Detwiler, J. (23 Aug 2012). “History’s Scariest Addiction Treatments.” The Fix. Accessed February 18, 2015.

[31]Seasonal Affective Disorder.” (24 Nov 2014). Psychology Today. Accessed February 18, 2015.

[32] Lender, M.E. (1987). “Drinking in America: A History.” Google Books. Accessed February 18, 2015.

[33]Significant Events in the History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America.” (n.d.). William White Papers. Accessed February 18, 2015.

[34]Children of Alcoholics.” (Dec 2011). American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Accessed February 18, 2015.

[35]Facility Locator.” (n.d.). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Accessed February 18, 2015.

[36]Timeline: Treatments for Mental Illness.” (n.d.). PBS. Accessed February 18, 2015.

[37]Substance Abuse and Mental Health.” (n.d.). Helpguide. Accessed February 18, 2015.

[38] Mackowiak, P.A. & Batten, S.V. (Dec 2008). “Post-traumatic stress reactions before the advent of post-traumatic stress disorder: potential effects on the lives and legacies of Alexander the Great, Captain James Cook, Emily Dickinson, and Florence Nightingale.” Journal of Military Medicine. Accessed February 18, 2015.

[39]PTSD: Frequently Asked Questions.” (n.d.). Military.com. Accessed February 18, 2015.

[40]A Timeline in the Treatment of Madness.” (n.d.). The Society for Laingian Studies. Accessed February 18, 2015.

[41] Pan, D. (29 Apr 2013). “TIMELINE: Deinstitutionalization and Its Consequences.” Mother Jones. Accessed February 18, 2015.

[42] Ebert, A. & Bar, K.J. (April – June 2010). “Emil Kraeplin: A pioneer of scientific understanding and psychiatry and psychopharmacology.” Indian Journal of Psychiatry. Accessed February 18, 2015.

[43] Dr. Torrey, E.F. (n.d.). “Homelessness, Incarceration, Episodes of Violence: Way of Life for Almost Half of Americans with Untreated Severe Mental Illness.” Mental Illness Policy. Accessed February 18, 2015.

[44]Results from the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Mental Health Findings.” (2013). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Accessed February 18, 2015.

[45] Hayashida, M. (1998). “An Overview of Outpatient and Inpatient Detoxification.” Alcohol Health & Research World. Vol. 22, No. 1. Accessed February 18, 2015.


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