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Teaching Points: “The History of Drugs in Twentieth-Century America”

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

Editor’s Note: This post is brought to you by Marco Ramos and Tess Lanzarotta. Ramos is an MD/Ph.D. candidate in the History of Science and Medicine program at Yale University focusing on the production and circulation of scientific knowledge during the Cold War in the global south. Lanzarotta is a Ph.D. candidate in the same department focusing on the ways that contemporary interactions between biomedical researchers and indigenous populations are shaped by their historical antecedents. This summer, Ramos and Lanzarotta taught a course on the history of drugs in the twentieth century and we’ve invited them to contribute to our “Teaching Points” series. Enjoy! 

Over the course of five weeks this summer, we co-taught a course on “The History of Drugs in Twentieth-Century America.” As discussed in our earlier post, we decided to focus the course around historical processes of drug categorization, rather than on a single drug or class of drugs. We hoped that this approach would draw undergraduate students’ attention to the ways that systems of drug classification are and have been shaped by their historical contexts. In particular, we felt it was crucial to emphasize the ways that drug categories affect and are affected by the people who use and regulate drugs.

Part of the impetus for the course was our own sense that historical analysis makes a particularly useful tool for understanding contemporary dilemmas surrounding drug use and drug policy. Bearing that in mind, we structured our classroom discussions and course assignments to encourage students to draw lessons from the past and bring them to bear on the present. The class was a seminar format with sessions running for three hours, twice each week; we tried to break up this rather long classroom time by delivering short lectures, showing documentaries and television episodes, visiting the Yale Medical Historical Library and Yale Art Gallery, and by bringing in guest speakers who could share their perspectives and expertise.

american junkie

age of anxiety

For our sixth session, we invited Dr. Jordan Sloshower, a Psychiatry resident at Yale University and co-founder of the Yale Psychedelic Science Group, to discuss the resurgence of interest in the therapeutic potential of psychedelic drugs within contemporary psychiatric and psychological research circles. Dr. Sloshower, well-versed in the history of LSD both as an object of scientific research and as a tool of countercultural rebellion, gave an insightful presentation on the difficulty of maintaining the scientific legitimacy of one’s research while working with chemical substances that come with considerable cultural baggage.

The following week, we assigned David Herzberg’s article, “The Pill You Love Can Turn on You: Feminism, Tranquilizers, and the Valium Panic of the 1970s,” and chapter, “Busted for Blockbusters: ‘Scrip Mill,’ Quaalude, and Prescribing Power in the 1970s,” for a session on “Drug Panics” and the 1970s backlash against the pharmaceutical industry. We also gave short lectures on “The Anti-Psychiatry Movement” and on “Women, Alcohol, and Alcoholism” to provide some additional context for the readings and to help explain the rising skepticism surrounding medical authority in the 1970s. We found that Herzberg’s work set us up perfectly to contrast the societal response to widespread pharmaceutical addiction amongst white women in the 1970s with the persecution of African-American drug users during the War on Drugs (the topic for our next session) by clearly illustrating how one drug panic helped shape the conditions of possibility for the next.

new jim crow

Session eight focused on “Drugs as Agents of Prevention and Optimization.” Students read Ken Silverstein’s article “Millions for Viagra, Pennies for Diseases of the Poor” and Alan Schwartz’s New York Times piece, publishing in 2012, about a child psychiatrist who openly admitted to prescribing ADHD drugs to underprivileged high school students in order to help boost their academic performance; through these articles, we were able to frame lifestyle drugs as a social justice issue. Our students were familiar with debates surrounding study drugs and were quick to put their own experiences and observations in context; the most passionate and vocal students in our class were uneasy about, if not entirely hostile towards, “lifestyle drugs” and “pharmaceutical optimization” as morally defensible concepts, given their potential to maintain and amplify systems of inequality both internationally and within American society.

We focused our final class around drug issues related to HIV/AIDS. We were fortunate to have Dr. Alexander Bazazi, an epidemiologist and member of the Yale Global Health Justice Partnership, join us to discuss contemporary efforts, driven by pharmaceutical companies, to decrease the FDA’s regulatory power and expedite the process of drug approval. Students had read selections from Steven Epstein’s Impure Science: AIDS, Activism, and the Politics of Knowledge and so were prepared to contrast current arguments for deregulation to those that had been raised by HIV/AIDS activists, desperate to gain access to potentially life-saving medication, in the 1980s and 1990s. During this session, we also watched a CNN special about InSite, North America’s only supervised injection site, which we used to continue the discussion about harm reduction as drug policy that had started weeks earlier.

A summer term class at Yale runs for just five weeks and it was challenging to develop a a classroom rapport in such a short time. In the interest of encouraging students to read and comment on one another’s work, we created a class blog; students were required to post contemporary media relating to drugs and to write historically-informed reflections. In addition, students did primary source analyses, so that their classroom assignments required them to not only connect the past to the present, but also to learn how to take the past on its own terms. We concluded the class with a final exam, because, while some of our students expressed a desire to do deeper research on topics that interested them, we felt there simply wasn’t time for a research paper in a five week course!

For both of us, this was our first time developing and running our own course, so we’d welcome any feedback, questions, etc. on the design of the class!



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