Women Alcoholics at Bellevue, 1918-1919

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Science  29 Nov 1996:
Vol. 274, Issue 5292, pp. 1447-1451
DOI: 10.1126/science.274.5292.1447e

Data published in Science's pages in a 1936 article about historical trends in alcoholism admissions at Bellevue Hospital in New York City are probably mistaken. The questionable data occur in a paper authored by alcoholism, vitamin, and cholesterol researcher Norman Jolliffe (1901–1961) [“The alcoholic admissions to Bellevue Hospital” 83, 306 (1936)].

Jolliffe's paper reported a generally downward trend in the proportion of female (to male) Bellevue alcoholism admissions from 1902 to 1933—the latter, national prohibition's final year. The trend was punctuated however by a sudden spike in 1918 and 1919, when the proportion of female admissions virtually doubled to 41.8% and 39.5%, respectively. Jolliffe offered two guesses for the occurrence. First, it might have been “due in part to an increase of social drinking occasioned by entertaining soldiers embarking for and returning from overseas.” Second, the unhappiness caused by the war-time absence of men turned more women to drink. Jolliffe cleverly deduced that the absence of men, and not worry about men's safety in combat, explained the rise, incidentally, by noting that female admissions were almost as large in 1919 as in 1918, even though hostilities had ceased by the latter year.

In 1990, I exchanged correspondence with the late Mark Keller, longtime editor of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol, who worked as Jolliffe's editorial and research assistant in the 1930s. Keller noted that a mixup had occurred in the collection of data for Jolliffe's Bellevue admissions paper. He explained that both of Jolliffe's hypotheses for the female admissions spike were moot because the increase in the proportion of female admissions never actually happened. A change in admissions-recording practices, he explained, was the source of the apparent spike.

The previous [pre-1918] and later [post-1919] statistics were filed by the famous Dr. Menas Sarcos Gregory. During the war he went into Government service. The deputy who substituted for him … did something different from Gregory. He filed “all” the alcoholic admissions in the entire Bellevue Hospital, whereas Gregory used to file only the Alcoholic Ward admissions, in the old days, and the Psychiatric Division admissions since it got its new building. This obviously accounted for the seeming increase of female admissions in those two years; for apparently there was a policy of admitting most drunken women to the general medical wards rather than to the ‘alcoholic ward’ in Psycho. Likely, too, that in the old Alcoholic Ward (pre-1930s) there wasn't much room for women.—This error in the 1936 Science paper had never been corrected.

Keller's statement implies that more than the spike was awry in Jolliffe's admissions trend-lines. If the female admissions were underreported in years before and after 1918 and 1919, then both female admissions and, by extension, total admissions trends reported in Jolliffe's paper are likely problematic.

Keller noted that he had intended on more than one occasion to write Science about the matter, to illustrate, he said, the “vagaries of hypothesizing,” but he apparently never got around to it.

The data offered in Jolliffe's 60-year-old paper retain more than merely archaic interest. Figures relating to alcoholism admissions and alcohol consumption during national prohibition are used and of interest to, for example, both sides in the current national debate over drug decriminalization. (see, for example, E. A. Nadelmann, Letters, 1 Dec. 1989, p. 1104)

I hope and trust that Keller and the good Dr. Jolliffe would have been relieved and pleased to see this little matter finally cleared up!

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