Scientific Temperance Instruction was Evaluated by Educators

The exaggerations, distortions, and gross inaccuracies in textbooks endorsed by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union‘s (WCTU’s) Mary Hunt were increasingly criticized. Leading scientists and educators were concerned about Scientific Temperance Instruction. This included the presidents of Columbia, Cornell, Yale, Stanford, and Vassar. (1) As a result, Scientific Temperance Instruction was evaluated.

The Committee of Fifty

The prestigious Committee of Fifty was a group of leading scholars formed in 1893 to study the “liquor problem.” (2) It sought to determine facts rather than promote any theory or point of view. (3) Scientific Temperance Instruction was evaluated by a subcommittee acting for the Committee of Fifty.

The subcommittee, headed by faculty from Harvard and Clark Universities, found the WCTU’s program of temperance instruction seriously defective. The subcommittee contended that children should not be taught and forced to memorize “facts” that they would later find to be incorrect. It said this instructional approach was inappropriate and doomed to backfire.

The subcommittee acted for the entire Committee of Fifty, which later reviewed and accepted its findings. Therefore, the subcommittee will be referred to as the Committee. Because of his stature as a leading physician, Dr. John S. Billings authored and edited three volumes of reports.

Scientific Temperance Instruction evaluated

John S. Billings’ portrait in the National Library of Medicine wearing doctoral robe over his military uniform.

By making such unqualified assertions as “Alcohol is a colorless liquid poison,” the WCTU-approved textbooks conveyed the false impression that alcohol is poison in any amount. They also said that is always harmful.(4)

By constant repetition of the word poison and by making numerous exaggerations and false statements, the approved texts attempted to mislead and frighten young people into abstinence. (5)

Education vs Indoctrination

The Committee believed that instruction should be based on actual facts so that students could 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.” (6)

This was diametrically opposed to the view expressed by a prominent WCTU leader. She said that “To teach the danger of forming the awful, insidious, inexorable appetite [for alcohol], is the especial province of the teacher.” (7) Mary Hunt referred to 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.” (8)


The Committee contrasted contemporary knowledge on alcohol with that taught in WCTU-approved textbooks. It did so by placing side by side passages from standard authoritative textbooks with those from “Indorsed and Approved” textbooks . (9, ellipses in original.)

Standard Textbooks “Indorsed and Approved” Textbooks
“It may perhaps, be said with safety that in small quantities it (alcohol) is beneficial, or at least not injurious, barring the danger of acquiring an alcohol habit, while in large quantities it is directly injurious to various tissues.”

“In practice we find that in many persons a small quantity of alcohol improves digestion; and that a meal by its means can be digested which would be wasted.”

“The question of the propriety of the daily use of alcohol by healthy men is at present a very serious one, involving so many moral and politico-moral issues that is cannot be fully discussed here. Suffice it to state as obvious inferences from our present knowledge of the physiological action of alcohol, that the habitual use of moderate amounts of alcohol does not directly and of necessity do harm; that to a certain extent it is capable of replacing ordinary food, so that if it be scanty, or even if it be coarse and not easily digested, alcohol, in some form or other, is of great advantage; that in all cases it should be taken well diluted, so as not to irritate the stomach; and that wine or malt liquors are certainly preferable to spirits…”

“As Lieben also found that this substance (alcohol) exists in the urine of dogs, horses, and lions, and as A. Rajcwski obtained it from healthy rabbits, it must be acknowledged that our present knowledge strongly indicates that alcohol is formed and exists in the normal organism.”

“Alcohol is universally ranked among poisons by physiologists, chemists, physicians, toxicologists, and all who have experimented, studied and written upon the subject, and who therefore, best understand it.”

“Alcohol is not a food or drink. Medical writers, without exception, class alcohol as a poison.”


“This alcohol is a liquid poison, a little of it will harm any one who drinks it, and much of it would kill the drinker.”

“It must be remembered that in whatever quantity, or wherever alcohol is found, its nature is the same. It is not only a poison, but a narcotic poison.”

“…alcohol is often fatal to life. Deaths of men, women, and children from poisonous doses of this drug are common.”

“…when used as a beverage, it injures the health in proportion to the amount taken.”


“This alcohol is poisonous. It is its nature, even in small quantities, to harm any one who drinks it. It is capable of ruining the character-as well as the health; and if one takes enough it will kill him.”


One author of an approved series of textbooks remarked 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.” (10, emphasis in original.) The author may not have fallen so low as to believe what he wrote. But he did fall low enough to put it into textbooks for impressionable young students.

scientific temperance instruction was evaluated

Mary H. Hunt

However, relatively few authors were willing to damage their reputation by writing or revising books to conform to Ms. Hunt’s strict ideological guidelines. This is suggested by a simple fact. One-third of the approved textbooks were written anonymously. (11)

Mary Hunt had to pay one author $6,000 to write two books. That sum of money could have built or purchased a very large and commodious house at that time. Furthermore, at least one of the texts “authored” by another writer has been attributed to Ms. Hunt. (12)

By her own admission (13) the publisher of nearly all of the early written texts that were ultimately approved had asked her either to revise them herself or to supervise the revisions to bring them into conformity with her guidelines. Mary Hunt dealt with accusations of conflict of interest in a less than honest way. (14) Learn more at the Scientific Temperance Foundation.

The Survey

The investigating committee conducted a survey of all members of the American Physiological Society. In addition,  it surveyed 45 physiologists, hygienists, and specialists in allied sciences holding prominent positions abroad. The goal was to “obtain valuable expert opinions from practically the entire scientific world” regarding Scientific Temperance Instruction. (15)

A number of the scholars opposed the consumption of alcohol. Yet every respondent from the American Physiological Society except one “oppose[d] the so-called ‘scientific temperance instruction’ as it is now being promoted in the schools, the strong conviction of a number being that it is resulting in more evil than good.” (16) Of the foreign scientists, only one reported being in support of the approved textbooks.

scientific temperance instruction was evaluated

August Forel on 1,000 Swiss
franc banknote

“Even [August] Forel, perhaps the most energetic and brilliant advocate of total abstinence in Europe, who goes so far as to maintain that alcohol in all doses is a poison, remarks, in speaking of educational methods: I think that in America somewhat unwise methods have been adopted.'” (17, emphasis in original).

Textbooks Ideological and Propagandistic

The Committee expressed concern over the ideological and propagandistic nature of WCTU-approved textbooks and of 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 with such appellations as “greatest living authority,” “foremost scientist,” “the wise physician of today, who is abreast of the modem investigations concerning the drug,” “author of great prominence,” “most skilled in his profession,” “eminent scholar,” etc. (18)

The WCTU and other temperance writers tended to exaggerate the stature of those who agreed with them. On the other hand, they “frequently . .. abused anyone who disagreed with them. Indeed, derogatory and vituperative language became a trademark of the temperance crusade.” (19)

Strong-Arm Tactics

Frequently, temperance activists 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.” (20) Mary Hunt “pushed the editor of a temperance newspaper to investigate those opposed to temperance physiology instruction.” (21)

Teacher Opposition

After extensively documenting ” ‘scientific temperance’ propaganda,” (22) the Committee noted that “It is little wonder that educators and teachers oppose ‘scientific’ temperance.” (23) That’s because “the text-books are written with a deliberate purpose to frighten the children, the younger the better, so thoroughly that they will avoid all contact with alcohol.” (24) Indeed, a “study of what children actually remembered from their [Scientific Temperance Instruction] physiology 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.'” (25)

The Committee carefully studied all the evidence. It concluded that occasional and regular moderate drinking did not cause health problems. That drinking did not inevitably lead to drunkenness. And that alcohol education should be based on a recognition that “Intoxication is not the wine’s fault, but the man’s.” (26) This was diametrically contrary to fundamental temperance beliefs.

Textbook Dishonesty

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.'” (27) Then it reviewed the results of three studies of Scientific Temperance Instruction practice and outcomes, the Committee concluded that “under the name of ‘Scientific Temperance Instruction’ there has been grafted upon the public school system of nearly all our States an educational scheme relating to alcohol which is neither scientific, nor temperate, nor instructive.” (28)

Scientific Temperance Instruction was evaluated by leading scholars. They found it to be both misguided and counterproductive.

Mary Hunt Responded

In response, Ms. Hunt prepared a Reply to the Physiological Subcommittee of the Committee of Fifty.  In it she charged the authors of the report with being prejudiced against abstinence instruction. She blasted them for [alledged] gross misrepresentation of facts. And she insisted that the WCTU-endorsed textbooks were completely accurate. Ms. Hunt had her Reply entered into the Congressional Record. (29) Then she had the WCTU distributed more than 100,000 copies. (30)

The Legacy of Mary Hunt and Her Scientific Temperance Instruction

It is indisputable that “By the time of her death in 1906, Mary Hunt had shaken and changed the world of education.” (31) Her campaign for coercive temperance education (or “institutionalized prohibitionist propaganda” (32) was highly successful.

In 1901-1902, 22 million students had received anti-alcohol education based on temperance beliefs. (33)  “The WCTU was perhaps the most influential lobby ever to shape what was taught in public schools. Though it was a voluntary association, it acquired quasi-public power as a censor of textbooks, a trainer of teachers, and arbiter of morality.” (34)

Important to 18th Amendment

Temperance writers viewed the WCTU’s program of compulsory temperance education as a major factor leading to National Prohibition. (35) Other knowledgeable observers agreed. For example, the U. S. Commissioner of Education asserted in 1920 that:

In the creation of a sentiment which has resulted first in local option, then in state prohibition, and now in national prohibition, the schools of the country have played a very important part, in fact probably a major part. The instruction in physiology and hygiene with special reference to the effects of alcohol has resulted first in clearer thinking, and second in better and stronger sentiment in regard to the sale and use of alcoholic drinks. (36)

A study of legislative control of curricula in 1925 indicated that teaching about temperance “is our nearest approach to a national subject of instruction. It might be called our one minimum essential.” (37)

WCTU Control

The WCTU held a virtual monopoly over the selection of textbooks until the 1940s. It then began to have some competition from the Yale Center of Alcohol Studies. (38) Writing in 1961, Mezvinsky (39) reported that “[some alcoholic physiology and hygiene textbooks still stress total abstinence….] Some schools still stage [temperance] assemblies and meetings each year and hold WCTU essay and oratorical contests.” So-called Scientific Temperance Instruction “laid the groundwork for the formal drug education programs that remain high on the agendas of today.” (40) And some of the laws Ms. Hunt had passed still remain. (41)

Major Objective

It can also be argued that compulsory Scientific Temperance Instruction failed to achieve its major objective of bringing about complete abstinence. Annual consumption of alcohol beverages increased between 1880 and 1920. That is, it increased between the beginning of the movement and the beginning of national prohibition. Additionally, the difficulty of enforcing prohibition and its ultimate failure are important.  They indicate that the instruction had not convinced enough young people to support prohibition when they became adults. (42)

Scientific Temperance Instruction was evaluated. It failed the test. But did it fail in the long run? That’s for you to decide.

But before you do so, let’s take a look at the Temperance Movement Today.  


  1. Mezvinsky, N. Scientific Temperance Instruction in the schools. Hist Ed Q, 1961, 1, p. 52.
  2. Furnas, J. The Life and Times of the Late Demon Rum. NY: Putnam, 1965, p. 330.
  3. Billings, J. S., et al. The Liquor Problem: A Summary of Investigations Conducted by the Committee of Fifty, 1893-1903. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1905, p. 4.
  4. Timberlake, J. Prohibiti on and the Progressive Movement. Cambridge: Harvard U Press, 1963, p. 49.
  5. The American Alcohol Education Association  would later teach that alcohol is a “protoplasm poison” (Furnas, p. 317). This description sounded more scientific.
  6. Billings, et al., 1905, pp. 35-36.
  7. Bader, R. Prohibition in Kansas. Lawrence, KS: U Press of Kansas, 1986, p. 100.
  8. Hunt, M. Reply to the Physiological Subcommittee of the Committee of Fifty. Washington: U.S. G.P.O., 1904, pp. 17-18.
  9. Billings, J. S. (Ed.) The Physiological Aspects of the Liquor Problem: An Investigation Made for the Committee of Fifty. 2 vols. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1903, pp. 11-13
  10. Billings, 1903, p. 34.
  11. Billings, 1903, p. 26.
  12. American Library Association. The National Union Catalog: Pre-1956 Impressions. London: Mansell, 1973, v. 261, p. 17.
  13. Hunt, M. An Epoch of the Nineteenth Century. Boston: Foster, 1897, p. 49.
  14. “In order to deal with the accusation that she profited from reform, she signed over to charity the royalties due her on the thousands of physiology textbooks sold annually. Yet she believed that philanthropy began at home. Her never-publicized beneficiary was the Scientific Temperance Association. It was a group composed of Hunt, her pastor, and a few friends. The association used its funds to support the operations of the national headquarters of the WCTU’s Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction. It was a large house in Boston that was also Hunt’s residence.” (Pauly, P. The struggle for ignorance. Bull Hist Med, 1990, 64, 1990, p. 373.) Learn more at the Scientific Temperance Federation.
  15. Billings, 1903, p. 14.
  16. Billings, 1903, p. 15.
  17. Billings, 1903, p. 17.
  18. Billings, 1903, p. 23.
  19. Isaac, P. Prohibition and Politics. Knoxville: U Tennessee Press, 1965, p. 226.
  20. Billings, 1903, p. 25.
  21. Pauly, p. 387.
  22. Billings, 1903, p. 25.
  23. Billings, 1903, p. 31.
  24. Billings, 1903, p. 32.
  25. Tyack, D., and James, T. Moral majorities and the school curriculum. Teach Coll Rec, 1985, 86, pp. 518-519.
  26. Billings, et al., 1905, pp. 30, 35, 41.
  27. Billings, 1903, p. 35.
  28. Billings, 1903, p. 44.
  29. Hunt, 1904, ibid.
  30. Mezvinsky, p. 184.
  31. Ohles, J. The imprimatur of Mary H.H. Hunt. J School Health, 1978, 48, p. 478.
  32. Clark, N. The Dry Years. Seattle: U Washington Press, 1965, p. 35.
  33. Hunt, 1904, p. 23. Ms. Hunt asserted in 1904 (p. 3) that such education was “now mandatory in the public schools of every state in the United States, and in all schools under Federal control.” However, Billings (1903, p. 100) reported that Georgia was “the only State having no law on the subject.”  And Flanders (1925, p. 68) reported that “Idaho was then [1903] the only state where it [temperance instruction] was not prescribed.” But Billings (1903, p. 100) presented section eight of the relevant act, which had become Idaho law in 1899.
  34. Tyack and James, p. 519.
  35. Cherrington, E. The Anti-Saloon League Yearbook. Westerville, OH: The League, 1920, pp. 178-179.
  36. Timberlake, J. Prohibition and the Progressive Movement. Cambridge: Harvard U Press, 1963, p. 46.
  37. Tyack and James, p. 516.
  38. Mezvinsky, pp. 48-56.
  39. Mezvinsky, p. 54.
  40. Erickson, J. Making King Alcohol tremble. J Drug Ed, 1988, 18?  p. 333)
  41. Garcia-McDonnell, C. The Effects of the Beginning Alcohol and Addictions Basic Education Prevention Curriculum. Ph.D. diss, Wayne State U, 1993, p. 13.
  42. Mezvinsky, p. 54.