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Monday, October 20, 2008

Constructive imperialism and sobriety: Evidence of alcoholism among candidates for the British Colonial Service from 1898-1904
Drugs: education, prevention and policy, Volume 15, Issue 5 October 2008 pages 439 - 450

To study what was termed 'alcoholism' among candidates for the British Colonial Service from 1898-1904 and how it was identified by comparison with specialist literature of the time: and to analyse the results of such medical examinations for associations between evidence of alcoholism and other variables.

All 3846 medical examinations on candidates for the British Colonial Service from August 1898 to July 1904.

The term 'alcoholism' was used in the examination although 'inebriety' was the more usual specialist term at the time. Physical symptomology was used for the purposes of identification. There were 79 candidates (2%) who exhibited evidence of alcoholism, the predominant indicators being the smell of liquor on the breath (68%), facial congestion (27%), tremors (23%), a furred tongue (14%), and a tremulous tongue (8%). All of the candidates with evidence of alcoholism (CWA) were males, significantly older than non-CWAs and more likely to be rejected from the Colonial Service. Multiple logistic regression analyses found that a history of syphilis and a history of having lived in the tropics were associated with being a CWA.

The context of the examination and the terminology used showed little influence on colonial medicine from the specialist inebriety field.The use of the term 'alcoholism' predates its more general use in British medicine and psychiatry. The low prevalence of evidence of 'alcoholism' among candidates for the Colonial Service could be the result of one of more of the following: temperance movements, which made abstinence more respectable at the higher levels of English society; the overall labour skills needed for these colonial positions and the higher economic class of applicants; self-selection out of colonial work by heavy drinkers realizing that their condition would not be conducive to tropical life; or lack of motivation to pursue such careers.

The syphilis finding supports testimony in the Physical Deterioration Report of 1904 that linked alcoholism and syphilis. The association between having lived in the tropics and evidence of alcoholism supports contemporary concern over the effect of the tropical climate on the health of those who did not practice moderation in drink.

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