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Mrs. Marty Mann and the Medicalization of Alcoholism

Updated: Aug 30, 2023

I’m a big fan of contradictions. Where they occur – in social movements, in ideology, in programs of action – they tend to highlight the underlying compositional character of human enterprises.  Thus contradictions also provide occasions where the contributing strands of such enterprises may be more easily separated out for examination.  (Comedians, of course, love contradictions too – because they highlight our foolishness as a species.)  Below, I examine an intriguing contradiction lodged in one of the deep assumptions of the modern alcoholism movement.

Marty Mann (middle) at Blythewood, July 4, 1938 (photo from Sally Brown and David R. Brown's biography of Mann (permission pending)

The alcoholism movement sought to popularize the notion that alcoholism was a disease or illness phenomenon.  In that sense – and understood at face value — the movement also sought to medicalize alcoholism.  Yet, Alcoholics Anonymous, whose emergence was arguably the deep underlying force in the development of the alcoholism movement, offered an essentially lay and spiritually oriented approach to alcoholism.  Moreover, whereas a fully medicalized view of alcoholism might promote the appropriateness of alcoholism treatment as offered, say, by psychiatrists, other M.D.s, psychologists of various stripes, and hospitals and clinics, A.A. arguably emerged in response to the past failures of these medical efforts respecting alcoholism’s treatment; A.A. offered an alternative to alcoholism’s past medical handling.  Hence, (a) if A.A. was the institution that, deep down, drove the modern alcoholism movement and (b) if the movement’s ideological centerpiece, the disease concept of alcoholism, sought to medicalize alcoholism, then, and therefore, (c) A.A. was fostering (albeit indirectly) an idea that ran counter to its own program and philosophy.  Go figure!

Not the least interesting aspect of this suggested contradiction is how little attention it has garnered in the literature on alcoholism and the modern alcoholism movement over the years.  Perhaps the notion that A.A. and the disease concept are happy complements to each other is just too familiar by now to raise eyebrows regarding this underlying dissonance.  Yet, the contradiction did not go entirely unnoticed, either.  In 1945, in Texas, soon after the launch of Mrs. Marty Mann’s National Committee for Education on Alcoholism (NCEA), a local NCEA organizer named Julian Armstrong wrote Mann a letter objecting to the medicalizing aspect of her disease concept campaign.  Conventional medical and psychiatric treatment programs, Armstrong suggested, didn’t work.  Moreover, Mann, as a member of A.A., Armstrong added, knew they didn’t work.  So why, Armstrong asked, was Mann promoting the appropriateness of all kinds of treatment responses to alcoholism as part of her alcoholism-is-a-disease campaign?

believe that clinics, or any other medical or psychiatric means can straighten out very many “alkies” (although I know it can in some instances, here and there) but I do believe that the average individual will more readily go into a clinic to find out what to do for what ails them than they will investigate a layman’s organization such as ours.  And also I believe that the very presence of a clinic will emphasize and advertise to the uninitiated that alcoholism is a disease which is to be treated, not hidden or punished. 

It bears noting that Mann’s apparent support and promotion of various conventional medical and psychiatric approaches to alcoholism treatment was a theme she carried forward into both her Primer on Alcoholism (1950) and New Primer on Alcoholism (1958).  In other words, this aspect of her promotional enterprise was by no means a passing or incidental element.

There are three aspects of Mann’s reply to Armstrong I’d like to consider.  First — and when Mann’s letter is read in its plain meaning — Mann was suggesting to Armstrong that the medicalizing implications of the disease campaign were, in effect, an unfortunate but necessary subterfuge.  Medical style treatments were being promoted, she argued, not because they were effective but because they tended to shift the public’s image of the alcoholic in a medicalistic direction and thereby also lessened the stigma that kept alcoholics out of treatment.  In this sense, medicalization, as Mann saw it, was chiefly an exercise in image management and image change, and should not, by implication, be interpreted at face value — not, at least, by an A.A. insider like Armstrong.

Second, it is notable, I think, that Mann’s reply casts into sharp relief two quite different meaning packages surrounding the disease conception of alcoholism.  Mann’s optimistic “lots of different kinds of treatments may help alcoholics” meaning imputation contrasts dramatically with the fatalistic meaning that Dr. Bob, for example, had in mind when he urged Bill W. to make good use of the disease idea in the then-under-construction text of “The Big Book.”  As Ernie Kurtz (2002) recounted:

In 1938, while preparing the manuscript of the A.A. Big Book, Bill Wilson asked Dr. Bob Smith (a proctologist) about the accuracy of referring to alcoholism as disease or one of its synonyms. Bob’s reply, scribbled in a large hand on a small sheet of his letterhead, read: “Have to use disease — sick — only way to get across hopelessness,” the final word doubly underlined and written in even larger letters (Smith [Akron] to Wilson, 15 June 1938). (2)

These optimistic and fatalistic meanings served quite different purposes in their respective contexts in Mann’s movement and in AA’s mission.  (I have discussed these two meaning complexes a little more fully here.)

The medicalizing contradiction imbedded in A.A.’s relation to the movement to promote the disease conception of alcoholism in post-Repeal America therefore highlights three important, and not entirely consistent, strands of meaning and purpose in the modern alcoholism movement.  It illuminates how much Mann’s enterprise was focused on changing America’s image of the alcoholic – even if such image-changing efforts involved her at some points in uncomfortable dissonance with respect to her A.A. commitments.  The contradiction also highlights the competing and arguably contradictory connotative meanings of optimistic and fatalistic visions of the disease conception.  Finally, the contradiction also affords a useful vantage point for appreciating the role strains Mann had to accommodate in advancing the disease conception on behalf of three different interests — the Yale group’s interests, A.A.’s perceived interests, and her own preoccupation with image change and reducing popular stigma on alcoholism.  Contradictions, like I said, can shed a valuable light.


(1)  Letter, Mann to Armstrong, September 8, 1945, quoted in Bruce Holley Johnson, The Alcoholism Movement in America: A Study in Cultural Innovation, Ph.D. dissertation, Sociology, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, 1973, p. 289.

(2)  Ernest Kurtz, “Alcoholics Anonymous and the Disease Concept of Alcoholism,” Alcoholism Treatment Quarterly 20 (3&4):5-39, 2002.



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