In the 1860's, there was for the first time concern about the results of
chronic abuse of absinthe. Chronic use of absinthe was claimed to
produce a syndrome, called absinthism, which was characterized by
addiction, hyperexcitability, epileptic fits and hallucinations. This was
first described in a series of influential papers by Dr Valentin Magnan,
the chief physician at the asylum of Sainte-Anne in Paris. Magnan
"In absinthism, the hallucinating delirium is most active, most terrifying,
sometimes provoking reactions of an extremely violent and dangerous
nature. Another more grave syndrome accompanies this: all of a sudden
the absinthist cries out, pales, loses consciousness and falls; the
features contract, the jaws clench, the pupils dilate, the eyes roll up, the
limbs stiffen, a jet of urine escapes, gas and waste material are
brusquely expulsed. In just a few seconds the face becomes contorted,
the limbs twitch, the eyes are strongly convulsed, the jaws gnash and the
tongue projected between the teeth is badly gnawed; a bloody saliva
covers the lip, the face grows red, becaomes purplish, swollen, the eyes
are bulging, tearful, the respiration is loud, then the movements cease,
the whole body relaxes, the sphincter releases, the evacuations soil the
sick man. Suddenly he lifts his head and casts his eyes around him with
a look of bewilderment. Coming to himself after awhile, he doesn't
remember one thing that has happened."
Magnan's research was fundamentally flawed. His experiments involved
exposing small animals to large quantities of pure wormwood essence,
rather than to commercially produced absinthe, which contains only a
relatively small percentage of actual essence. (In French, crucially, the
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A skeptical English scientist writing in The Lancet, in 1869, described how:
"the question whether absinthe exerts any special action other than that of alcohol in general, has been revived by some experiments by
Monsieurs Magnan and Bouchereau in France."
The experiments placed animals such as guinea pigs in tightly sealed glass jars, some with a saucer of pure wormwood essence,
others with one of alcohol. The animals which inhaled wormwood vapours experienced "epileptiform convulsions", those exposed only
to alcohol fumes merely became lively and drunk. The Lancet's anonymous correspondent continued:
"Upon these facts it is sought to establish the conclusion that the effects of excessive absinthe drinking are seriously different from those
of ordinary alcoholic intemperance. It is not the first time that we have had to notice discussions on this subject, and to comment upon
the inadequacy of the evidence produced in order to prove that absinthism, as met with in the Parisian world, is something different in its
nature from chronic alcoholism. We have never denied the possibility of an ultimate discovery of such differences, but we do maintain
that as yet no symptoms of absinthism have been described which are not to be met with in many of the victims of simple alcoholic
He went on to remark that the insomnia, trembling, hallucinations, paralysis and convulsions identified by Magnan as typical of
absinthism were all equally well known symptoms frequently met with in English alcoholics. He correctly pointed out that the fact that
concentrated fumes of wormwood were peculiarly toxic was evidence of little, as wormwood is present in only small proportions in
absinthe, and no absinthe drinker drinks, or inhales, concentrated wormwood.
Magnan, undeterred by this criticism, continued his researches on the same lines. He made much of the undeniably true observation
that many of the most desperate alcoholics encountered in Parisian hospitals were habitual absinthe drinkers. He attributed their
degeneration specifically to the absinthe they were drinking, rather than even considering the alternative and far more likely explanation
that, in common with hard-core alcoholics the world over, they were simply seeking out the cheapest and strongest spirit available to
them. In late nineteenth century France this was absinthe, just as it had been gin from the eighteenth century onwards in England.
Although as we have seen, the science, or pseudo-science behind these anti-absinthe reports was dubious and often obviously
flawed, they were generally accepted in France, and perhaps even more importantly, published as fact in the popular press of the day.
Further aggravating matters was the then widely held belief in scientific circles that not just the consequences of alcoholism were
hereditary - fetal alcohol syndrome, mental retardation and birth defects - but alcoholism itself. In other words, an alcoholic father would
sire alcoholic children and grandchildren, with each generation sinking deeper into despair and depravity. Absinthism was regarded as
the most dangerous and virulent form of alcoholism, and the most likely to be passed down from father to son.
Click on the Adobe icon to download and view the original article, together with
other early papers from the Lancet, including one by Magnan himself.
same word, absinthe, is used for both the essence and the drink, which meant that extracts from Magnan's and other scientists works
could be quoted directly by anti-absinthe prohibitionists in order to demonize the drink).
It now seems clear that the symptoms of “absinthism” were due primarily to the effects of the alcohol itself, and also perhaps to the
many sometimes extremely dangerous chemical adulterants used in cheap absinthes of the time. Well-made absinthes used
chlorophylic colouration from herbs to achieve their characteristic green colour. This however was an expensive and difficult to control
process, so unscrupulous low cost producers substituted chemicals such as copper sulphate to achieve the same effect. Antimony
chloride – another highly poisonous substance - was also used to help the drink become cloudy when water was added.
Considérations sur l’absinthisme
Thèse présentée et
publiquement soutenue à la
Faculté de Médecine de
Montpellier, le 10 Juillet 1880.
Par Marius Maunier
Numerous experiments with
salamanders, birds, guinea pigs,
dogs and monkeys are
described, in an attempt to clearly
differentiate between ordinary
alcoholism, and absinthism.