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Keller’s Reticence: A Note on the Perils of Insider Historiography

Updated: Mar 29

Mark Keller (1907-1995) was the long-time editor and editor emeritus of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol.(1)  His career in alcohol studies stretched all the way back to the 1930s, when he worked for Norman Jolliffe at Bellevue Hospital as a general-purpose research assistant and sometime editor.  Over the years Keller published a number of accounts of the genesis of “the new scientific approach” to alcohol problems in the mid- and late-1930s in the U.S.(2)  (I had the honor to attend a talk given by Keller on this topic at the Alcohol Research Group in Berkeley on February 13, 1978 — which presentation was later the basis for his 1979 article on this history [see 2].)  Keller’s accounts drew in part upon what he himself had witnessed as well as what Jolliffe passed along to him.  On a personal level, Keller always made his kind and generous scholarly help freely available to me.  In time, however, I came to appreciate one or two of the pitfalls of Keller’s essentially personal-reminiscence approach to this history.

One example concerns the untimely death of cardiologist John Wyckoff, Jolliffe’s boss at Bellevue Hospital.  Keller’s 1979 account suggested that officials of the Rockefeller philanthropic establishment used Wyckoff’s death as essentially an excuse for backing away from Jolliffe’s proposed seven-year study of alcohol admissions at Bellevue.  Rockefeller backpedaling, wrote Keller, prompted in part the formation of the Research Council on Problems of Alcohol.  The group was formed in order to build a wider foundation of symbolic support for new research on alcohol and alcoholism, including Jolliffe’s project.

In 1990, I corresponded with Keller, seeking more information on this history.  In one letter, Keller added the detail that Wyckoff had died from a heart attack.(3)  In a subsequent letter, Keller included the following enticing parenthetical remark regarding Wyckoff’s death:  “(There’s a private story I’m not writing.)”(4)  What was the “private story”?  Keller never told me.  However, when the web emerged as a research tool a few years later I found a lead.  One day I happened to google Norman Jolliffe’s name, just to see what the web would turn up.  A web page published by a Columbia University library described its holdings of Jolliffe’s papers, including a personal diary he’d kept during the period in question.  I wrote to the library, asking for pages covering a certain range of dates.  Days later, a package arrived.  It didn’t take long to find an entry Joliffe penned in late June, 1937, while on a Rockefeller-sponsored tour of European alcoholism treatment and research facilities.  Jolliffe’s scrawl was difficult to decipher, but I made out the following telling passage:

While in Stockholm received(?) the news of Wyckoff’s death.  Edna [Jolliffe’s wife] sent me a cable – read(?) in Eng.(?) and [indecipherable word] me by mail June 3.  As I am able to reconstruct it from clippings from newspapers, he was found in the Anat.(?) Dep.(?) about 1 p.m. by the night watchman in(?) coma(?) – [indecipherable word] to the hospital and put in the respirator & a diagnosis of Morphine Poisoning was made but later changed to Coma & suggestion made of a Coronary Occlusion(?).  He died the next morning(?) June 1. – and according to the newspapers autopsy showed coronary artery disease.  Letters from Brenner & Keller both indicate that it was suicide – I can’t believe it.  I don’t believe the chief took the suicidal dose of Morphine unless he felt a fatal attack of Coronary occlusion had occurred.  If under those circumstances he took the fatal dose I don’t blame him.  

So that was Keller’s secret.

John Wyckoff, New York Times, June 1, 1937

Further investigation revealed that Wyckoff had indeed committed suicide and that this tragedy was occasioned by a health insurance scam involving bogus electrocardiogram results, a scam that penetrated several New York area hospitals.  Wyckoff himself had not engaged in any criminal activity but apparently his embarrassment over the scandal’s involvement of his department at Bellevue occasioned his desperate act.  (I have gone into a little more detail on the events surrounding Wyckoff’s death here.)

Keller elected to omit mention of Wyckoff’s suicide in his historical accounts – and even in our private correspondence.  It cannot be determined with certainty whether Wyckoff’s suicide and the surrounding scandal may have spooked representatives of the Rockefeller establishment regarding Jolliffe’s proposed study, thus elevating this reason from a mere excuse (as Keller claimed) to a material factor in their negative decision. Yet it is known that the Rockefeller philanthropic enterprise was very shy about the limelight and adverse publicity.(5)  That particular aspect of their institutional culture of course may have heightened the potential significance of scandal and Wyckoff’s unhappy end in their deliberations.  Keller, in short, had left out an important detail.

One guesses that, for Keller, old loyalties and a disinclination to cast an old chief and the institution he once worked for in an unflattering light were the main reasons for keeping his “secret.”  He also may have wished to continue to shine-up the story of the movement he helped launch and furthered over his long career – or at least not sully it with unseemly elements.  In this case, then, the insider may have put institutional advantage above fully candid historical reporting.  It’s a pretty safe bet that independent historians – i.e., with no ties to Wyckoff, Bellevue, or  the early players at the post-Repeal new scientific approach to alcohol — would have included the Wyckoff suicide and the scandal in their historical accounts.

Keller may also have been reluctant to break the Wyckoff-suicide-and-scandal story to a new generation of readers.  As it happens, cardiologist Howard B. Burchell had already done that.  Burchell published a long and sensitive account of the Wyckoff tragedy in a 1983 article in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.(6)  Of course Burchell broke the story in another ‘smokestack” of the scientific literature.  Even if Keller had known of Burchell’s article – which I’m inclined to doubt – he might still have opted to shield his alcohol studies readership from the story.

Additional weaknesses to insider accounts also suggested themselves.  For example, I once asked Keller how he explained the remarkably large and prestigious body of American scientists listed as members of the Research Council on Problem’s of Alcohol when the group’s roster was first made public in a 1938 Science magazine report.(7)  Keller candidly replied he’d never read the Science report:  “The announcement of the RCPA formation,” he wrote, “I happen never to have seen!  Bear in mind:  Up to about ’39 all I knew was what Norman– Jolliffe – thought to tell me.  I am stuck with my remembrances…”(8)

Norman Jolliffe

Having lived through a moment in this history himself, the insider may feel relatively little need also to consult contemporary documentary evidence.  Moreover, accounts of long-past events by insiders harbor two related drawbacks.  The history being reported upon may have occurred when they themselves were quite young and quite junior members of the relevant institution.  Hence, they may not have been privy at the time to the understandings and back stories known by older and more senior members of the institution.  Moreover, memories of course play tricks over the span of many years and can get foggy.  In our correspondence, for instance, Keller misremembered the year of Wyckoff’s death as 1936 (it occurred in 1937), thus slightly throwing off his sequencing of events.

Summing up, then:  Maintaining old personal and institutional loyalties, an inclination to shine-up one’s historical story, the enduring primacy of institutional interests, a disinclination to consult documentary sources, junior institutional status at the time of the events being reported upon, and sometimes foggy, long-past memories – all these combine to make personal reminiscences a not entirely unproblematic approach to writing history.  Keller was entirely modest and forthright in our old correspondence in relation to these kinds of problems (with the exception of Wyckoff’s suicide).  His remembrances, to be sure, made a valuable contribution of this history, too.  Yet I know that Mark Keller would agree that reminiscences alone cannot take the place of fully deliberate and meticulous historical inquiry.


(1)  Which journal began its life as the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol in 1940, was renamed the Journal of Studies on Alcohol in 1975, and renamed again to the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs in 2007.

(2)  Including, in reverse chronological order:

[Keller, Mark], “Interview With Mark Keller,” pp. 57-66 in Edwards, Griffith(ed.), Addictions: Personal Influences and Scientific Movements, New Brunswick (U.S.A.) and London: Transaction Publishers, 1991.

Keller, Mark, “The Origins of Modern Research and Responses Relevant to Problems of Alcohol: A Brief History of the First Center of Alcohol Studies,” pp. 157-170 in Kozlowski, L.T., et al., (eds.), Research Advances in Alcohol and Drug Problems (Vol. 10), NY & London: Plenum Press, 1990

Keller, Mark, “Alcohol problems and policies in historical perspective,” pp. 159-175 in Kyvig, D.E. (ed.), Law, Alcohol and Order: Perspectives on National Prohibition, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1985.

Keller, Mark, “Alcohol, science and society: hindsight and forecast,” pp. 1-16 in Gomberg, E.L., White, H.R., and Carpenter, J.A. (eds.), Alcohol, Science and Society Revisited, 1982.

Keller, Mark, “Mark Keller’s History of the Alcohol Problems Field,” The Drinking and Drug Practices Surveyor 14:22-28, 1979.

Keller, Mark, “Multidisciplinary Perspectives on Alcoholism and the Need for Integration: An Historical and Prospective Note,” Journal of Studies on Alcohol 36:133-147, 1975.

(3)  Letter, Mark Keller to Ron Roizen, Sept. 17, 1990.

(4)  Letter, Mark Keller to Ron Roizen, Oct. 2, 1990.

(5)  On Rockefeller institutional shyness see my dissertation’s Chapter 3, Section II.

(6)  Burchell, Howard B., “Digitalis poisoning: historical and forensic aspects,” Journal of the American College of Cardiology 1(2 Pt 1):506-516, 1983.

(7)  “Reports: The Research Council on Problems of Alcohol,” Science 88:329-332, (7 October) 1938.

(8)  Letter, Mark Keller to Ron Roizen, Oct. 2, 1990.



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