E.M. Jellinek: Disease Theory of Alcoholism: Crook, Liar?

Elvin Morton Jellinek is usually called E.M. Jellinek. Once in a while, he is called Morton Jellinek or E. Morton Jellinek. To his friends, he was “Bunky.”

Jellinek was a pioneering figure in the study of alcoholism. But researchers have found that most of his ideas is not consistent with evidence. Also, facts discovered about his life have largely destroyed his character and reputation.


I.   Disease Theory

II.  The Man

III. Evaluation

IV.  Resources

I. Disease Theory of E.M. Jellinek

Jellinek effectively promoted the disease theory of alcoholism. He was paid by a wealthy alcoholic, R. Brinkley Smithers, to write The Disease Concept of Alcoholism. It was published in 1960. His theory that alcoholism is a disease is highly controversial among researchers today.

Types of Alcoholism

He also developed an unsupported theory of different types of alcoholism. They were Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, and Episilon alcoholism. At this point, they’re only of historical interest.

Jellinek Curve

Jellinek began developing what is generally called the Jellinek Curve. He did so in an effort to understand what he thought were stages of alcoholism progression. He came to reject the Curve and its utility, as did the scientific community. But Alcoholics Anonymous continues to accept it.


Mr. Jellinek also developed a formula for estimating the proportion of alcoholics in a population. But it’s not valid. Therefore, it is no longer used.

II. The Man

e.m. Jellinek
E.M. Jellinek

Who was this pioneer? Jellinek was born in 1890 in Brooklyn, NY. He was the son of Rosalind Jacobsen Jellinek and Ervin Marcell Jelinek. His mother was a well-known soprano. Her stage name was Marcella Lindh.

While he was a pre-schooler, the Jellinek family moved to Budapest, Hungry. His father took over the family transport business there.

When Morton Jellinek was in his late 20s, all evidence indicates that he was engaged in illegal currency transactions. He was accused of embezzling 500,000 Hungarian crowns. That equaled about $3,000,000 in 1920 U.S. dollars. It would be about 35,000,000 in today’s dollars.

Warrant for Arrest

E.M. Jellinek
Jelling with students at the summer school of alcohol studies. Caption: “”You two should have much to discuss,” said Professor Jellinek, introducing temperance worker Virginia Colvin, daughter of D. Leigh Colvin, 1936 prohibition candidate for president, to Merle Hagenmeyer, a Seagram Distiller’ employee.”

On June 28, 1920, a warrant for Jellinek’s arrest was published in both Hungarian and foreign newspapers. Jellinek vanished. According to his daughter, the family only heard from him five years later. He was living in Sierra Leone, a country in west Africa. To avoid arrest, he was using the name Nikita Hartmann. His daughter wrote that he then moved to Honduras, where he conducted banana research. It was for the United Fruit Company. He was fired from that job for unknown reasons.

In 1930, the statute of limitations for the criminal charges against him came into effect. He then returned to the US and began working at the Worcester State Hospital. He later directed the Yale summer school of alcohol studies until 1939. For a period he worked for the World Health Organization (WHO). He was working on a writing project at the Institute for the Study of Human Problems when he died suddenly in 1963.

There is complete uncertainty about his academic background.

III. Evaluation

By any measure, Jellinek was a brilliant man. A kind biographer observed this. “By some accounts Jellinek was also a bit of a charlatan. Among other endearing frauds, for instance, he appears to have fabricated his doctorate and in fact may have held no college degree at all.”1 Would those who were apparently cheated out of today’s equivalent of $35,000,000 have described his fraud as “endearing”?

Alledged Degrees

E.M. Jellinek
E.M. Jellinek

There is consensus among those who have investigated the matter. Jellinek’s self-reported degrees are almost certainly complete fabrications. He reported a degree from a university that had expelled him for non-attendance. He (a Jew) reported receiving a doctorate from a Nazi university. But that was also while he was working in Worcester, MA. The university had no correspondence program. The inconsistencies throughout his claimed degrees, the dates, and locations are great.

In addition, there were the gratuitous fibs. For example, he said his nickname meant “little radish” in Hungarian. In fact, the Hungarian word for “radish” is “retek.” And the list goes on.

Dr. Stanton Peele was blunt. He wrote that “Jellinek, the man revered for proposing a scientific basis for the idea that alcoholism is a disease, and after whom the most prestigious international award for alcoholism research is named, is a liar and a fraud!”2

IV. Resources on E.M. Jellinek

About Jellinek
By Jellinek
    • Haggard, H., and Jellinek, E.  Alcohol Explored, 1942.
    • Jellinek, E. and Jolliffe, N. Effects of alcohol: review of 1939. Q J Stud Alco, 1940, 1, 110-181, 1940.
    • Jellinek, E. (ed.) Alcohol Addiction, 1942.
    • _______. An outline of basic policies for a research program on problems of alcohol, Q J Stud Alco, 1942, 3, 103-124.
    • _______. The first (1943) summer session of the School of Alcohol Studies at Yale, Q J Stud Alco, 1943, 187-194.
    • _______. Clinical tests of analgesic drugs. Biometrics Bull, 1946, 2(5), pp.  87’“91.
    • _______. Phases in the drinking history of alcoholics. Analysis of a survey conducted by the official organ of A.A. Q J Stud Alco, 1946, 7,  1’“88.
    • _______. Current Biography: Who’s News and Why. NY: Wilson. 1947, pp. 334-335.
    • _______. Recent trends in alcoholism and in alcohol consumption. Q J Stud Alco, 1947, 8(1), 1-42.
    • _______. Dr. Masserman’s cats. Allied Youth, 1948, 17(6), 3,7.
    • _______., Efron, V., & Keller, M. Abstract archive of the alcohol. Q J Stud Alco, 1948, 8, 580-608.
    • _______. Phases of alcohol addiction. Q J Stud Alco, 1952, 13, 673-684.
    • _______. Drinking; a culture-historical approach. J Stud Alco, 1957, 38(5), 852-866.
    • _______. The Disease Concept of Alcoholism, 1960.

1. Roizen, R. E.M. Jellinek and All That!

2. Peele, S.  Jellinek was a Cheat!