Alcohol: History’s Favorite Mind-Bending Substance

And the time the U.S. government went to unthinkable lengths to pry it away.

cartoon image of a moonshine bottle with XXX written on it and sloshing brown liquid, on a wine colored paper-textured background
Credit: Kay Wasil

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Vervet monkeys steal it out of people’s hands. Chimpanzees in Guinea are known to climb up palm trees and drink it. There’s even a theory that loving it was an important adaptation for our pre-human ancestors, that the smell of fermentation helped them track down very ripe, calorie-rich fruit. 

Alcohol has been deeply ingrained in our lives from the beginning, possibly since before we were human. And while the drive to drink is older than civilization, many have worked hard to reign it in. In 1920s America, these desires clashed like never before. It’s a story of a battle between chemists, and the unthinkable lengths the U.S. government went to to try to pry away our favorite mind-altering substance.

Read a transcript of this episode.

Guest:

Deborah Blum is a science writer and journalist.

Footnotes & Further Reading: 

For more on the history of the government denaturing program, check out The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York.

For more on the “chemist’s war,” read this article by Deborah Blum.

Credits:

Science Diction is produced by Johanna Mayer and Elah Feder. Elah is our editor and senior producer. Our composer is Daniel Peterschmidt, who also mastered this episode. Special thanks to the Arabic scholar Stephen Guth, and to Kat Eschner. This episode was fact checked by Robin Palmer. Chris Wood contributed sound design. Nadja Oertelt is our chief content officer.


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This season of Science Diction is sponsored by Audible.

Meet the Writers

About Johanna Mayer

Johanna Mayer is a podcast producer and hosts Science Diction from Science Friday. When she’s not working, she’s probably baking a fruit pie. Cherry’s her specialty, but she whips up a mean rhubarb streusel as well.

About Elah Feder

Elah Feder is a senior producer for podcasts at Science Friday. She produces the Science Diction podcast, and co-hosted and produced the Undiscovered podcast.

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