Page images
PDF
EPUB

SOCIOLOGICAL ASPECTS OF RECENT LEGISLATION IN NORWAY RELATING TO ALCOHOL AND ALCOHOLISM

By DR. JON ALFRED MJOEN Director of the Chemical and Race-Hygiene Research Laboratories, Christiania,

Norway; Member of the Norwegian Academy of Science

If I am not mistaken, it was Dr. Alfred Ploetz who first drew attention to the fact that the germ-cells are located in the human organism in such a way that the individual has a natural protection against racial poisons, and especially those which, like alcohol, modern industry provides by an elaborate process of manufacture. Surrounding the germ-cells of the individual we find a sort of protecting membrance. No blood vessels are in direct contact with spermatozoon or ovum. When chemical poisons are brought into the animal body, they find their way to all organs and all cells of the organism, with perhaps the only exception, the germ-cells. Nature has in its wisdom arranged a special protection for the most sensitive stage of human life—the stage of conception. There is hardly any doubt that the above-mentioned protective apparatus acts against most of the poisons, but there are exceptions to the rule. Such exceptions are ether, chloroform, and the stronger alcohols. The proof that this is the case lies in the fact that these bodies have been found in the germ-plasm by means of chemical analysis.

From the fact that alcohol can reach the germ-cells, we are not allowed to draw the conclusion that it is therefore hurtful to these cells. Alcohol as compared with many other chemical bodies, is somewhat indifferent in its nature and action. It does not easily go into reaction, like such bodies, for instance, as we designate

1 Dr. J. Alfred Mjoen, the author of this article, has been the chief, or director, of the State control of alcohol in Norway. As a member of a Royal Commission, he drafted a bill known as “The Progressive Class System for Beer.” This bill was favorably received by the Norwegian Minister Knudsen, and brought before the Storthing as a Government measure. It was accepted as a part of the election programme of the Radicals, the Socialdemokrats, and supported by all total abstinence organizations, and after four years of discussion was adopted by the Norwegian Parliament in July, 1912, and came into force on July 1, 1913. Dr. Mjoen is a member of the Academy of Science of Christiania.-EDITOR British Journal of Inebriety, from which publication this article is reprinted.

"acids" or "alkalies.” If alcohol, therefore, should have a retarding or disturbing influence on the chemical synthesis which takes place in the living cells, it has to be characterized as an anti-catalytic effect. It does not itself take part in the chemical reaction, but disturbs through its presence alone the reactions between the other bodies in the cell. The questions then arise: Have we any proof that alcohol has such an anti-catalytic effect on chemical reaction in general? And, further, is there any evidence that alcohol has such an effect upon the germ-cells or the reproductive organs that it is to be considered injurious to the offspring? We need to inquire also: Are the toxic effects of alcohol, if such exist, independent of the strength or concentration of the alcoholic preparation ?

Experiments with artificial digestion in the presence of alcohol of different concentration have shown that alcohol up to 2 per cent. has no effect or leads to only a very slight increase of the digestive power of the solution. From 2 to 3 per cent. of alcohol gave no effect at all, and from 372 to 4 per cent. a slight decrease. I have recently continued these experiments, together with the Director of the Chemical State Control Station of Norway Hals; we have aimed at fixing the exact point of concentration when and where the disturbing effect of alcohol commences. We found no effect at all up to about 27/2 per cent., but from 3 to 4 per cent. a slowly growing decrease of the digestive power was noted, and from 8 per cent. a considerable inhibiting effecť occurred. From these and other observations I feel convinced that alcohol can play an anti-catalytic part in chemical reactions without taking a direct part itself, and the effects are dependent upon the degree of the concentration. This discovery, if we can call it so—that the effect of alcohol is dependent on the concentration-ought not to surprise us when we take into consideration that the chemical and physical qualities of so-called "poisons” in general change according to the quantity and quality of foods and fluids taken with them. Prussic acid, for instance, is taken without harm in the form of fruits. In concentrated state, on the contrary, it is the quickest acting poison that we know of. So also formic acid. The effect of chloroform and ether as an anæsthetic is so much dependent on the concentration in which it is administered that no narcosis at all is obtained when the mixture of chloroform vapor with air or oxygen is below a certain percentage. In other words, the effect of the same quantity of the narcotic substance varies according to dilution. Concentrated hydrochloric acid in very small quantities destroys life, but in dilute form it is not only harmless, but on the contrary—it is a normal and necessary part of the digestive fluid of the stomach.

When alcohol through distillation is separated from the fluid in which it is produced by fermentation, it changes its physical, chemical, and physiological character. It precipitates albumen, which it does not do in its original form. When it reaches a strength of 96 per cent. it loses one molecule of water, which is chemically bound to the atom complex, and it changes its qualities so much at the same time that it must now be classified as a corrosive liquid like the strongest acids. A small amount of this alcohol is able to cause, and has caused, the instantaneous death of a person taking it. These examples show that alcohol of different concentration can hardly be considered the same agent, and ought not to be handled as the same agent.

The next question is, Can we, by studying the effect of alcohol upon the offspring (animal experiments or by observations on human material), find that the effect is dependent on the degree of concentration of the toxic agent?

When I commenced to study the effect of alcohol on the offspring, I took a few single cases and studied these for years, noting the form of alcohol used (concentration), general state at time of conception, maternity, lactation, etc., and, of course, the quality of the offspring produced. I also took like 'stocks for comparison. From the cases I had under observation I am able to draw the conclusion that parental drinking will in one case where lighter drinks are used, have no perceptible effect, and in another, where stronger drinks are used, have a serious effect on the offspring, even if the alcohol used (quantity reduced to pure ethyl alcohol) was practically equivalent. But I hardly believe that even the strongest alcohol can create a defective germ-plasm in perfectly sound and healthy stock. It would seem that the effect is principally an anti-regenerative one.

I have also made experiments to find the intoxicating effect that alcohol of different strength has upon individuals. The results of these observations were that below a certain percentage, which varies somewhat with the individual, there is no intoxicating effect of alcohol whatever. And that stronger, drinks—for instance, brandy of 50 per cent.—have double, three times, or four times, the effect of lighter drinks containing the equivalent amount of alcohol.

We have by accident had an opportunity in Norway of seeing

[ocr errors]

how brandy, in contrast to other drinks, influences the whole community. It has been an experiment on a large scale—what I would call a nature experiment, which in all its cruelty has been very instructive to scientific observers. When freedom was given to carry on the distillation of brandy in Norway in the year 1816, the socalled "home" or "house" distillation commenced throughout the land. In some districts almost every farmer distilled brandy from his own corn and potatoes. The consumption of brandy replaced the consumption of other drinks in several of our mountain valleys. Among these communities the number of feeble-minded increased from 1816 to 1835 more than 100 per cent. The country was alarmed, and, after an attempt to diminish alcoholic indulgence, a tax was placed on the still, and the house-distillation was stopped in the year 1848. The farmers had for years been brewing beer, and some primitive "home-made” wine from fruit, most of it containing 5, 4, or 3 per cent. of alcohol, and sometimes less. Any perceptible difference in the state of health, after more or less of these drinks were consumed, could not be detected. The enormous increase of feeble-minded came and went with the change in the supply of brandy.

The question then arises: Does the action of alcohol lead to the development of a defective germ-plasm, or can the effects of alcohol on the offspring of the alcoholic be explained in some other way? According to my view, we have no proof whatever that alcohol exerts any real influence on the offspring when the parents come from absolutely sound and healthy stocks. I have found so many examples of strong and healthy children where father, grandfather, and even great-grandfather, have been habitual indulgers in alcohol. But in certain families the same quantity of alcohol taken by the parents has appeared to lead to deterioration in the offspring. I am therefore not able to accept the theory of blasthoptoria in any other sense than that alcohol prevents the restitution or regeneration of an already "taintedgerm-plasm. I mean to say that alcohol does not as a rule create the defective germ-plasm, but maintains it when it already is defective. But, judging the social injury done by the alcohol, we must not forget that most stocks in fact are more or less tainted,and that a large proportion of individuals are the bearers of a germ-plasm containing defective "recessivecharacters.

We must admit that the influence of alcohol on the offspring is a very complicated problem. I am still of the opinion that there is a constant interaction between the somatic cells and the germ-cells-an interaction of chemical nature, which probably is of more importance than the direct or primary influence of the chemical poisons upon the germ-cells. This view seems to find a support in the latest works by Dr. Carl Ceni, who, by experiments on dogs, has noted a very interesting interaction between the cells of the brain and the germ-cells. We shall probably one day find that alcohol can attack a special organ-locus minoris resistentiaeand that the defective organ—for instance, the brain, the liver, the kidney-produces substances which are hurtful, poisonous, to the germ-cells. We shall also, I hope, be able to find the exact limits between the three groups (concentrations) of alcohol: the one which does not injure either the individual or race (very low percentage); the second group, which injures the individual but not the offspring; the third group, which injures both individual and race. But we cannot wait to take social restrictions until the exact limits are fixed (cf. Table, p. 143).

The alcoholic question as a social and political problem can be viewed from different standpoints. It demands study on national, economic and social-individualistic grounds. With the new movement, which carries the name of Race-Hygiene or Eugenics, quite a new view of the alcohol question comes to the front. The injury done to the single individual—serious though it may be—is nevertheless of less importance than the injury done through the offspring to the race. And with this view eugenists claim the necessity for still more research and the application of educational and other precautions. Of course, a practical solution of the alcohol question based on eugenic principles encounters many difficulties. As stated above, we are not at present able to indicate the absolute limits as to quality or concentration of the alcoholic preparation which affects the offspring. Some of our fellow-workers have therefore given expression to the opinion that we must pospone our eugenic reform work until we have reached scientific conclusions of a more absolute and exact character. Such a policy is hardly well founded. We can't wait to take precautions to save the individual until the chemical and physical effects of alcohol are made absolutely clear; and we can't hestitate to take precautions to protect the offspring—the true rights of the child—until the effect of alcohol upon the germplasm is fully understood in all its details.

We have to begin at once. The first attempt to work out a Social Reform Bill founded on eugenic principles of prophylactic

« PreviousContinue »