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Treasure of the Month: Alcohol, Cats, and People

Alcoholism is occasionally referred to as “Jellinek’s Disease” in honor of E. M. Jellinek, whose works, including the book The Disease Concept of Alcoholism, published in 1960, has left a remarkable impact on both scholarly and popular audiences.

Scholars know him as one of the first editors of the pioneering Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol (QJSA), but in popular pamphlets and lay supplements he often wrote to broad audiences. We must admit that Jellinek was ahead of his time in communication and outreach as well as in scholarship. With an amusingly-illustrated four-page publication entitled Alcohol, Cats and People, Jellinek managed to beat the trend of social media’s cat infatuation by a couple of decades!

Originally published under the title “Dr. Masserman’s cats” in the magazine Allied Youth, the article will probably leave a bit of a sour taste in the reader today, as it describes animal experiments. The ethics and history of animal testing is a topic unto itself, one that Jellinek’s article doesn’t cover. Instead, he draws parallels between the behavior of inebriated cats and their human counterparts to get his point across to a wide range of lay readers.

Other than his animal experiments on neuroses, the name of the researcher in the title might sound familiar from the late 1980s. Psychiatrist Jules Masserman was accused by former female patients of having been drugged and sexually abused. Jellinek’s pamphlet draws upon Masserman’s scholarly article “Alcohol as a Preventive of Experimental Neuroses” published in the Quarterly Journal of Studies on Alcohol in 1945 that Jellinek not only read but probably also edited at that time.

Smart animals as they are, cats in the experiment first refused to drink milk laced with alcohol. Instead, they had to be injected to reach various phases of intoxication. I’d rather spare the details, but the article does have a point. Results showed that intoxication interfered with learned behaviors in reverse order of learning, that is, what was learned last was forgotten first and what was learned first was forgotten last. 
And cats did choose to drink alcohol-laced milk when faced with a choice of being hungry or suffering pain caused by a slight electric shock. Moreover, they got addicted and refused to drink regular milk, even though they often became apathetic after the effects of alcohol wore off. The happy ending of this nauseating experiment (pun intended) is that when the same cats were retrained not to be afraid, they wouldn’t touch the milk with alcohol, that is, they recovered from their addiction!

With all this, Jellinek’s point is that, unlike cats, humans possess intellectual and emotional means to figure out their conflicts and make efforts to resolve them. He claims that “One of the finest ways of preventing inebriety is to develop the spiritual and intellectual assets of one’s personality and to learn how to utilize them.”

man writing

Jellinek in 1947. Photo from Allied Youth

Jellinek’s legacy will remain fascinating for scholars and the lay reader alike. As the director of the first Summer School of Alcohol Studies in 1943, not only did he realize how to include people from diverse backgrounds into the program, he managed to find a language to speak to all of them. Strange or outdated as may sound for us today, Jellinek’s publications also foreshadow initiatives of diversity, equity, and inclusion. He was well aware that addiction can affect anyone and they need to be reached via a means closest for them to process and cope: science, spirituality, or even cats.

The genre that established this is exemplified by “Alcohol, cats and people.” The 1951 edition called Of cats and people features a new approach in alcohol education: telling a science-based story with the help of cartoons in a modified comic book. Geared toward young people, but definitely appeals to everyone. Jellinek’s pamphlet predates social media in showcasing content with cat pictures and teaches about communicating our message too: we can post that cute kitty as long as the image supports the text and calls to action.

Originally published

  • Jellinek, E. M. (1948). Dr. Masserman’s cats. Allied Youth, 17(6), 3,7.

Republished as

  • Jellinek, E. M. (1948). Alcohol, cats and people. New Haven, CT: Yale Center of Alcohol Studies.
  • Jellinek, E. M. (1948). Alcohol, cats and people. Trenton, NJ: New Jersey Council on Alcohol Problems
  • Jellinek, E. M. (1948). Alcohol, cats and people. Avon Park, FL: Florida State Alcoholic Rehabilitation Program.
  • Of cats and people. (1951). Auburn, AL: Alabama Polytechnic Institute.