Next week's Foundry Series event, Opioid Addiction After the Civil War, features Jonathan Jones of Binghamton University. Jonathan was kind enough to answer a couple questions before the event. Make plans to join us next Thursday.
How did you become interested in your topic and what about your work still fascinates you?
I initially became interested in opiate addiction among Civil War veterans back before today’s opioid crisis really burst into most Americans’ consciousness—or, at least, my own awareness. When I wrote my master’s thesis in 2013 about Civil War veterans and PTSD, I stumbled across a handful of cases of wounded veterans who became addicted to morphine. At the time, I thought to myself, “wow, that’s really interesting,” but because the opioid crisis hadn’t yet developed into a major news story, I didn’t realize how very relevant the topic of Civil War veterans’ morphine addiction was to the present. I took a couple of years off (teaching high school history, which was a blast!) before resuming my graduate studies in 2015. But the whole time, I just couldn’t get those morphine-addicted veterans’ stories out of my mind.
So when it was time for me to pick a research topic for a seminar at Binghamton in 2016, I gravitated toward those few cases of opiate addiction among Civil War veterans that I had discovered a few years prior. Meanwhile, the context changed, because the opioid crisis developed into a major news story. Hearing story after story about opioid addiction on the news affected the way I thought about opiate addiction among Civil War veterans. I started to realized that although historians have known for decades that some veterans became addicted to opiates, we still know surprising little about the phenomenon. What did drug addiction mean for veterans and their loved ones? How did it affect them? How did doctors deal with cases of opiate addiction?
So with some urging from my advisor, Diane Miller Sommerville, I adopted the Civil War veterans’ opiate addiction crisis as my dissertation topic, to try to answer these lingering questions. I’m so fascinated by what we don’t know about the nation’s first opioid epidemic.
What was the most significant or surprising find during your research?
Aside from the great personal toll of addiction for Civil War veterans and their families, I think my most significant findings are some really striking parallels in the responses to today’s opioid crisis and that of the Civil War era. For example, doctors in the post-Civil War years tried to convince other Americans to think of addiction as a disease, rather than a vice, hoping this would lead to more humane treatment of addicted individuals. Other physicians tried to regulate the prescribing and sale of morphine, hoping these measures would prevent people from becoming addicted. We often hear similar rhetoric from doctors today. (source: https://www.civilwarmonitor.com/blog/then-and-now-how-civil-war-era-doctors-responded-to-their-own-opiate-epidemic) But these efforts, both in the Civil War era and today, tended to be piecemeal, and so not very effective.
Did you discover anything interesting that you have decided not to include in your dissertation?
I did! I’ve found many examples of Confederate women who became addicted to opiates more or less because of the Civil War. For example, one woman self-mediated with opiates for depression and anxiety while her husband was away from home in the Confederate army. When he came home from the army, he forced her to quit cold turkey, and the withdrawal almost killed her. This self-medicating is interesting to me because fits with patterns that other scholars have documented. Because of the absence of men, Confederate women were forced to adopt new roles during the war—like running farms, keeping accounts, managing enslaved people—which placed Confederate women under heightened emotional and mental stress. In response, some of them turned to opiates. But because Confederate women aren’t the protagonists of the story I tell in my dissertation—and for the sake of time management—I had to hold off on a deep dive into these cases for the moment. And I also want to know more about women’s opiate addiction, like, did northern women also self-medicate during the Civil War? How did women’s opiate abuse vary by race and class? But I will answer these questions when I adapt the dissertation into a book, so stay tuned!
How do you see the topic of your work relating to events or issues in society today?
Amidst the opioid crisis, knowing how past generations grappled with addiction is more important than ever. In 2017, drug overdose killed more than 72,000 Americans—that’s more deaths than the number of American soldiers who died in the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars combined. (source: https://www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics/overdose-death-rates) The crisis, as far as I can see, has no end in sight. It demands solutions, and the more information we have informing potential public policies, the better.
I see my research as doing two things in relation to today’s opioid crisis: First, it reveals how old opioid addiction in the U.S. really is. My research shows that Americans became addicted to opiates go as far back as the mid nineteenth century. Despite multiple “drug wars” over the years, American civil and medical authorities have been unable to develop permanent solutions for opioid addiction. Pointing out the old age and durability of the problem, I hope, will convince public policy makers that opioid addiction necessitates a much more powerful, coordinated response than we’ve been able to muster so far. Second, my research uncovers parallel responses by authorities to opiate addiction in the Civil War era and today. I hope that pointing out these similarities will convince lawmakers, civil authorities, and the medical community that if we truly intend to resolve the opioid crisis, we will need much more coordinated and sweeping responses to it.