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Dipsomania, an 18th-century woodcarving by Josef Stammel in the library of Admont Abbey.

Dipsomania is a historical term describing a medical condition involving an uncontrollable craving for alcohol. In the 19th century, the term dipsomania was used to refer to a variety of alcohol-related problems, most of which are known today as alcoholism. Dipsomania is occasionally still used to describe a particular condition of periodic, compulsive bouts of alcohol intake. The idea of dipsomania is important for its historical role in promoting a disease theory of chronic drunkenness. The word comes from Greek dipso (Greek: "δίψα"= thirst) and mania.

It is still mentioned in the WHO ICD-10 classification as an alternative description for Alcohol Dependence Syndrome, episodic use F10.26


The term was coined by the German physician Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland in 1819, when, in a preface to an influential book by German-Russian doctor C. von Brühl-Cramer,[1] he translated Brühl-Cramer's term "trunksucht" as "dipsomania".[2] [3][4] Brühl-Cramer classified dipsomania in terms of continuous, remittent, intermittent, periodic and mixed forms, and in his book he discussed its cause, pathogenesis, sequelae, and treatment options, all influenced by prevailing ideas about the laws of chemistry and concepts of excitability.[5]

Due to the influence of Brühl-Cramer's pioneering work, dipsomania became popular in medical circles throughout the 19th century.[6] Political scientist Mariana Valverde describes dipsomania as "the most medical" of the many terms used to describe habitual drunkenness in the 19th century.[7] Along with terms such as "inebriety", the idea of dipsomania was used as part of an effort of medical professionals and reformers to change attitudes about habitual drunkenness from being a criminally punishable vice to being a medically treatable disease.[8] As historian Roy MacLeod wrote about this dipsomania reform movement, it "illuminates certain features of the gradual transformation taking place in national attitudes towards the prevention and cure of social illnesses during the last quarter of the 19th century."[8]

Although dipsomania was used in a variety of somewhat contradictory ways by different individuals, by the late 19th century the term was usually used to describe a periodic or acute condition, in contrast to chronic drunkenness.[9] In his 1893 book Clinical Lessons on Mental Diseases: The Mental State of Dipsomania, Magnan characterized dipsomania as a crisis lasting from one day to two weeks, and consisting of a rapid and huge ingestion of alcohol or whatever other strong, excitatory liquid was available.[9] Magnan further described dipsomania as solitary alcohol abuse, with loss of all other interests, and these crises recurred at indeterminate intervals, separated by periods when the subject was generally sober.[9]

Over time, the term dipsomania became less common, replaced by newer ideas and terms concerning chronic and acute drunkenness and alcoholism.[10]

Examples in fiction[edit]

  • Sebastian Flyte, a character from the novel Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, who sarcastically describes himself as a dipsomaniac
  • James O. Incandenza, a character in Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, described in the novel as having "crippling dipsomania"
  • Dwight Carson, a talented writer in The Fountainhead, who is turned into a dipsomaniac on the whim of Gail Wynand
  • Charlotte Merriam (actress who plays Mrs. Ritchey in the 1931 movie Night Nurse) who exclaims that she is a dipsomaniac several times when confronted by Barbara Stanwyck's character (Lora Hart) with the fact that Ritchey's daughter is dying from malnutrition
  • Peter Morgan Sr., (played by actor Charles Coburn) in the 1938 movie Vivacious Lady, talks about his nephew Keith Morgan's (played by James Ellison) dipsomania ways.
  • Richard Gilmore, a character in the TV series Gilmore Girls, refers to a fundraiser speaker as a dipsomaniac in the season one episode "P.S. I Lo..."

Examples in science[edit]

  • William Thomson, 1st Baron Kelvin writing to George FitzGerald on April 9, 1896:[11] "I have not had a moment's peace or happiness in respect to electromagnetic theory since Nov. 28, 1846 (see vol i. p. 80 M.P.P). "All this time I have been liable to fits of ether dipsomania, kept away at intervals only by rigorous abstention from thought on the subject."

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Hasso Spode: Die Macht der Trunkenheit. Sozial- und Kulturgeschichte des Alkohols, Opladen 1993, pp. 125ff.
  2. ^ The history of alcoholism: Brühl-Cramer's concepts and observations - KIELHORN - 2006 - Addiction - Wiley Online Library
  3. ^ Valverde, Mariana (1998). Diseases of the Will. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 48. ISBN 978-0-521-64469-3.
  4. ^ Peters, Uwe Henrik. Lexikon Psychiatrie, Psychotherapie, Medizinische Psychologie. Dipsomania entry at Google Books.
  5. ^ Wiley.com journal
  6. ^ NLA record
  7. ^ Google book search
  8. ^ a b Extract at sagepub.com
  9. ^ a b c Dipsomania entry at Psychoanalysis Encyclopedia
  10. ^ Tracy, Sarah (2005). Alcoholism in America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. p. 31. ISBN 978-0-8018-8119-0.
  11. ^ Thompson, Silvanius P. (1910). The Life of William Thomson: Baron Kelvin of Largs (First ed.). London: Macmillan and Co., Limited. p. 1065. |access-date= requires |url= (help)

External links[edit]