Scientific Temperance Instruction: Temperance Teachings

Mary H. Hunt of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU) was a visionary. She wanted laws in every state of the U.S. to require what she called Scientific Temperance Instruction for all students in every school in the country.

Hunt believed that it was important to teach temperance to young people. After all, they were the future.


I.   Mary Hunt, Visionary

II.  Scientific Temperance Instruction Evaluated

III. Resources

I. Mary Hunt, Iron-Willed & Effective Visionary

But she was more than simply a visionary. Mary Hunt had great drive and proved to be a brilliant strategist and leader. This enabled her to achieve her vision.

She convinced the WCTU to form a Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction in Schools and Colleges in 1880. She was selected as its head. It was Hunt’s belief that alcohol could never be prohibited unless the public saw it as a dangerous poison. Her plan was to convince the next generation of voters that drinking must be outlawed.

Scientific Temperance Instruction
Mary H. Hunt

She worked for state laws mandating temperance teachings. There was both public indifference and opposition. But she persevered. Once a state law was passed requiring temperance teachings, she would mount a campaigns to strengthen it.

By the turn of the century virtually every state and territory had laws mandating the teaching of the evils of alcohol. Many of these laws were more specific than laws on any other subject the curriculum.1

But Ms. Hunt said that laws did not enforce themselves. So she had members of local WCTU chapters monitor compliance. They visited schools to observe the temperance lessons, examinations, recitations, and textbooks.2

Dictated Temperance Content

Enacting mandatory temperance instruction laws and making sure that they were strictly enforced was only part of the movement. Mary Hunt wanted to dictate the content of the instruction and textbooks.

In 1886, she sent publishers a checklist for textbooks that would be acceptable to the WCTU. For example, books should stress that a little drink creates an uncontrollable craving for more. They should illustrate the “appalling effects of drinking habits upon the citizenship of the nation.” And they should not mention the fact that doctors used alcohol for medicinal purposes.3

The textbooks endorsed by the WCTU had to state a simple view. It was “any quantity of alcohol in any form was toxic and when consumed regularly produced inheritable disorders into the third generation.”4 Textbooks that didn’t have approval by the WCTU (in reality, by Mary Hunt) were very hard to sell.

One endorsed textbook stated as “scientific” these ideas.

[S]ometimes one is sick or suffers very much because of wrong things that his parents or grand-parents did. Over in the poor-house is a man who does not know as much as most children four years old. That is because he is the child of drinking parents whose poisoned life blood tainted his own. Many men and women are insane because they inherit disordered bodies and minds. This is caused by the drinking habits of their parents. And the descendants of “moderate drinkers” differ in this way as well as those of the drunkard. This is called the law of heredity. It is one of God’s laws, and just like earthly laws, helps right living and punishes those who disobey.5

Another approved textbook asserted that “One of the most destructive agents man has brought into use is alcohol.” It explained why.

It has often been observed that children of intemperate parents frequently fail to develop into manhood or womanhood. They may not be deformed, but their growth is arrested, and they remain small in body and infantile in character. Such are examples of a species of degeneracy. They are evidences of the visiting of the sins of the fathers upon the children. This may extend even into the third and fourth generations.6

Recommended Demonstrations

Suggested classroom demonstrations included putting part of a calf brain in an empty jar. Then alcohol was to be poured into the jar. The color of the brain would turn from pink to gray. Students were to be warned that a drink of alcohol would do the same to their brains.7  Or an egg could be cracked into a jar of pure alcohol and the curdled mess would be described as similar to the effect of alcohol on the stomach’s lining.8

The WCTU’s Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction promoted false statements as scientifically proved facts.

• The majority of beer drinkers die from dropsy.
• When alcohol goes down the throat, it bums off the skin leaving it bare and burning.
• Alcohol causes the heart to beat too fast. This puts it at risk of failing. To keep it beating, the person has to take drink after drink.
• Alcohol turns the blood to water.
• [Referring to invalids], a man who never drinks liquor will get well, where a drinking man would surely die.9

Alcohol is Poison

The WCTU promoted compulsory temperance education to create “trained haters of alcohol to pour a whole Niagara of ballots upon the saloon.”10  To this end it required that textbooks it approved “teach that alcohol is a dangerous and seductive poison. That fermentation turns beer and wine and cider from a food into poison. That a little liquor creates by its nature the appetite for more; and that degradation and crime result from alcohol.”11

“The cornerstone of the educational campaign was the absolute insistence of this “fact.” That alcohol in any form and in any amount was a poison to the human system.12  Many of the statements in approved texts were, at best, misleading. They were designed to frighten young students.

• The nature of alcohol is that of a poison ….
• Any substance capable, when absorbed into the blood, of injuring health or destroying life, is a POISON. . . . Remember this- ALCOHOL IS A POISON. ..
• A cat or dog may be killed by causing it to drink a small quantity of alcohol.
• A boy once drank whiskey from a flask he had found, and died within a few hours’¦.
• Any drink that contains alcohol is not a food to make one strong; but is a poison to hurt, and at last to kill….
• Alcohol is a colorless liquid poison. Its presence makes what was before a good fruit juice a poisonous liquid. (Alcohol) changes a food to a poison . . . alcohol and all spirituous liquors are poisonous.13

Physical Problems

Not only did the approved textbooks describe alcohol as a poison. They taught that it was the cause of many physical problems and resulting death.

• Very often in chronic, though perhaps moderate, drinkers, the arteries, instead of being strong, elastic tubes, like new rubber hoses, become hardened and unyielding, and are liable to give way.
• [Among drinkers] in some cases the liver reaches an enormous weight, fifteen, and even twenty to twenty-five, pounds being not uncommon.
• Alcohol sometimes causes the coats of the blood vessels to grow thin. They are then liable at any time to cause death by bursting…. Worse than all, when alcohol is constantly used, it may slowly change the muscles of the heart into fat. Such a heart cannot be so strong as if it were all muscle. It is sometimes so soft that a finger could easily be pushed through its walls. You can think what would happen if it is made to work a little harder than usual. It is liable to stretch and stop beating and this would cause sudden death.
• There is one form of… disease, called alcoholic consumption, which is caused by alcohol. The drinker looks well, till suddenly comes a “dropped stitch,” or a pain in the side. Then follows difficulty of breathing and vomiting of blood, then a rapid passage to the grave.14

Mental Problems

The textbooks approved by the WCTU also implicated psychological problems.

Many people are made crazy by the use of alcoholic liquors. In some asylums where these people are kept, it has been found that nearly one half of the crazy people were made crazy from this cause. Not all of these were drinkers themselves. It often happens that the children of those who drink have weak minds or become crazy as they grow older ….

A noted murderer confessed that never, but once, did he feel any remorse. Then he was about to kill a babe, and the little creature looked up into his face and smiled. “But,” he said, “I drank a large glass of brandy, and then I didn’t care.”15

Opposed Moderate Drinking

No one knows how many children suffered needless anxiety and emotional trauma as they watched their parents enjoy a drink with their dinner. But the WCTU was unalterably opposed to moderation.

The very word “moderation” inflamed the WCTU and the Prohibition Party. It was “the shoddy life-belt, which promotes safety, but only tempts into danger. It fails in the hour of need . . the fruitful fountain from which the flood of intemperance is fed. Most men become drunkards by trying to drink moderately and failing.” Even conceding that a rare few could conceivably imbibe in moderation at no risk to themselves, they should nevertheless refrain lest they set a bad example for the weaker majority of the human race.16

Thus, approved textbooks asserted this. “To attempt to drink fermented liquors moderately has led to the hopeless ruin of untold thousands.” It continued that “It is the nature of alcohol to make drunkards.”17

II. Scientific Temperance Instruction Evaluated

By the mid-1890s, leading scientists were criticizing the falsehoods in textbooks endorsed by the WCTU.

Committee of Fifty

A prestigious Committee of Fifty had been formed in 1893 to study the “liquor problem.”It consisted of scholars and other leading citizens.

The Committee of Fifty sought to determine facts. It had no point of view to promote.18  A subcommittee was formed, headed by faculty from Harvard and Clark University. It studied Scientific Temperance Instruction.

The subcommittee found the WCTU’s program of temperance instruction to be seriously defective. The Committee said children should not be taught “facts” they would later find to be incorrect. This was seen as doomed to backfire.

The WCTU-approved textbooks make such unqualified assertions as “Alcohol is a colorless liquid poison.” They clearly conveyed the false impression that alcohol is poison in any amount and is always harmful.19

The texts constantly repeated the word poison and made many exaggerations and falsehoods. So approved books clearly trying to mislead and frighten young students into abstinence.

Factual Education Needed

The Committee believed that instruction should be based on facts. Students could then form their own educated opinions. They “should not be taught that the drinking of a glass or two of wine by a grown-up person is very dangerous.”20

This was clearly opposed to the view of Ms. Hunt. She warned of the enormous “harvest of death that might result from the universal teaching that the drinking of one or two glasses of wine is not ‘very dangerous.'” She asserted that “such teaching would be nothing less than crime.”21

One author of an approved series of textbooks said this to the Committee. “I have studied physiology and I do not wish you to suppose that I have fallen so low as to believe all those things I have put into those books”22 (Emphasis in original.) Yet he did fall low enough to put it into textbooks for young students.

Ideology and Propaganda

The Committee expressed concern over the ideological and propagandistic nature of WCTU-approved textbooks. It was also concerned about the “Scientific Temperance Instruction” movement.

“As is generally the case when feeling and prejudice run high, the temptation has been irresistible to either manufacture evidence or stretch it over points that it does not cover. To call ‘scientific’ everything that happens to agree with [its] particular prejudices. And to relegate to the limbo of human error all the evidence that appears for the other side. Another characteristic feature of this movement has been the flattery of authors who favor the views to be inculcated. It uses such appellations as ‘greatest living authority,’ ‘foremost scientist,’ and ‘the wise physician of today.’ Also ‘author of great prominence,’ ‘most skilled in his profession,’ ’eminent scholar,’ etc.”23

Those with whom they disagreed were belittled, discredited and attacked. But this often went beyond mere words.

The Committee of Fifty noted “the efforts of the ‘scientific temperance’ people to secure the dismissal of state employees suspected of not being sufficiently in sympathy with their own extreme views.”24 Ms. Hunt also “pushed the editor of a temperance newspaper to investigate those opposed” to Scientific Temperance Instruction.25  It was dangerous to disagree with Mary Hunt and her many deeply committed followers.

Committee Critical

The Committee widely documented “‘scientific temperance’ propaganda.'”26 It  noted that “It is little wonder that educators and teachers oppose ‘scientific’ temperance.”27  That’s because “the text-books are written with a purpose to frighten children so thoroughly that they will avoid alcohol.”28 Indeed, a “study of what children actually remembered from their [Scientific Temperance Instruction] classes reported one pupil’s response. Alcohol ‘will gradually eat away the flesh. If anyone drinks it, it will pickle the inside of the body.'”29

The Committee was clearly displeased about “the manner in which scientific authorities are misquoted in order to appear to furnish support to ‘scientific temperance instruction.'”30 It examined the results of three studies of Scientific Temperance Instruction practice and outcomes.

After it reviewed all the evidence that it collected, the Committee drew its sad conclusion. It was that “‘Scientific Temperance Instruction’… is neither scientific, nor temperate, nor instructive.”31 Discover more at Discover more at Scientific Temperance Instruction was Evaluated by Educators.

The bottom line bears repeating. Scientific Temperance Instruction was found to be “neither scientific, nor temperate, nor instructive.”

III. Resources

Readings on Scientific Temperance Instruction

By the Committee


1   Tyack, D. and James, T. Moral majorities and and the school curriculum. Teach Coll Rec, 1985, 86, 515-516.

2  Hunt, M. A History of the First Decade of the Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction. Boston: Wash Press, 1892, pp. 53, 58.

3  ______.  Scientific Temperance Instruction. Boston: Foster, 1897,  p. 47.

4  Kobler, J. Ardent Spirits. NY: Putnam’s Sons, 1973, p. 140.

5  Furnas, J. The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rum.  NY: Putnam’s, 1965,  pp. 193-

6 Sheehan, N. The WCTU and educational strategies on the Canadian prairie. Hist Ed Q, 1984a, 24, p. 104.

7 Kobler, ibid.

8  Sinclair, A. Prohibition. Boston: Little, Brown, 1962, p. 39.

9 Kobler, ibid. p. 143.

10  Sinclair, ibid., pp. 43-44.

11  ______, ibid., p. 44.

12   Bader, R. Prohibition in Kansas. U Press Kansas, 1986, p. 99.

13  Atwater, W., and Billings, J. Physiological Aspects of the Liquor Problem. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1903,  pp. 30-31.

14  ______, ibid., pp. 32-33.

15  ______, ibid.

16   Kobler, ibid., p. 140.

17 Atwater and Billings, ibid., pp. 30-31.

18 Billings, J. (ed.) The Liquor Problem. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1905, p. 4.

19 Timberlake, J. Prohibition. Cambridge: Harvard U Press, 1963, p. 49.

20  Billings, pp. 35-36.

21 Hunt, M. Reply to the Physiological Subcommittee of the Committee of Fifty. Wash: Sen Doc No. 171, 1904, pp. 17-18.

22 Atwater and Billings, 1903, ibid., p. 34.

23 ______, ibid., p. 23.

24 ______, ibid., p. 25.

25 Pauly, P. The struggle for ignorance about alcohol. Bull Hist Med, 1990, 64, p. 387.

26 Atwater and Billings, ibid,, p. 25.

27 ______, ibid., p. 31.

28 ______, ibid., p. 32.

29 Tyack and James, ibid., pp. 518-519.

30 Atwater and Billings, ibid., p. 35.

31 ______, ibid, p. 44.