Liberty, Prudence, Imperfection, and Law

“Cora F. Stoddard on the Hereditary Effects of Alcoholism: Prohibitionist Moral Suasionism in Scientific Garb,” by Dennis L. Durst

A lithograph by Nathaniel Currier supporting the temperance movement.


Social reform movements seeking to change deeply engrained patterns of human behavior have a formidable task. Whether one favors environmental or hereditary explanations of such patterns of behavior, the tenacity of human habituation is a fact of daily life and experience. Emerging from the optimistic Gilded Age, when science and education were in the ascendancy as potent forces for social change, the temperance movement is a classic case study in the triumphs and tribulations of social reform and its use of science as an ally. This paper seeks to illuminate use of one strand of science in suasionist arguments by Anti-Saloon League editor Cora Frances Stoddard (1872‒1936), namely, the hereditary damage caused by alcohol, in the Progressive Era case for Prohibition. This use of science proved to be too selective and ultimately too unstable to solidify a permanent policy of prohibition.


Before addressing the Anti-Saloon League’s Cora Stoddard, we must first briefly note the groundwork laid by the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). Mary H. Hunt, the central figure in early Scientific Temperance education efforts, set forth the political implications of the educational thrust of the WCTU:

Blot from the great mass of human ill-doing and suffering the consequences of the use of alcoholic liquors and other narcotics and something like the millennium would remain. But in a Republic such blotting must be voluntary with a majority of the people before it can be compulsory, because a government of the people cannot compel majorities. . . .As long as a majority of the voters believe in and want to drink alcoholic liquors, they will not vote to forbid their sale.[1]

The goal of the Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction therefore became the training of children to abhor and fear the use of alcoholic beverages and to grow up with a strong ethos of total abstinence. This mindset would then create a populace more amenable to outright legislative restrictions on alcohol use, culminating in prohibition.

Hunt was not satisfied with education only. She became known as “Queen of the Lobby” for her efforts to sway legislators to support local prohibition in the 1880s. By 1886 the US Congress approved legislation to mandate “Scientific Temperance Instruction in the public schools of all federal territories and in the military academies as well.” By 1901 every state had its own law requiring American schools to promote “scientific temperance” at least three times per week in the curriculum. Daniel Okrent describes this instruction rather harshly, as pure propaganda and intimidation.[2] Indeed, the rhetoric of this educational material tacked toward the sensational, histrionic, and inaccurate. In her history of the early years of “scientific temperance instruction,” Hunt warned: “No boy expects to be a drunkard when he begins to drink. Teaching him only the evils of an intemperance that he imagines he could never be guilty of will make small impression. He must be shown that because of the nature of the drink there is a scientific connection between the first glass and the drunkard’s fate.”[3]

For all the judgments historians might level at the scientific accuracy of Hunt’s writings, the fact remains that her impact on turn-of-the-century temperance instruction in the public schools was profound. By 1901, half the nation’s school districts had incorporated textbooks on temperance approved by Mary H. Hunt. Margot Lamme notes that when Hunt died, “more than forty textbooks featured her research and/or editorial input concerning the role of alcohol and its impact on the body and on society.”[4]

Cora Stoddard

After Hunt’s death in 1906, a scandal arose over the proceeds and royalties she had been paid for her anti-alcohol textbooks, often forced upon school districts by law throughout the land. Those interested in “scientific temperance” but unwilling to be closely associated with Hunt’s legacy began to create their own scientific temperance apparatus. The key figure was Cora Stoddard, who shifted her efforts away from the WCTU and increased her work with the Anti-Saloon League (ASL) and its burgeoning publishing empire in the field of temperance.[5] Cora Stoddard had a long history with the WCTU and had served as private secretary to Mary H. Hunt from 1899‒1904. She helped found the new organization known as The Scientific Temperance Federation in 1906, serving as its executive secretary until her death in 1936. Stoddard traveled widely for the temperance cause, representing the US government at the Twelfth International Conference against Alcoholism in London in 1909. In 1919 she joined the World League against Alcoholism, and spoke around the world against alcohol throughout the 1920s. She served as editor of The Scientific Temperance Journal as well as contributing to the ASL newspaper The American Issue.[6] Stoddard continued to represent both the WCTU and the ASL and arguably was a key figure bridging the differences between the two organizations. However, her ties to Mary Hunt created tensions when the news of Hunt’s financial dealings emerged in the press and caused damage to the WCTU and its reputation. Over time, however, Stoddard worked out her differences with the WCTU behind the scenes, while her work with the ASL was more evidently public through her editorial endeavors. By the 1920s, Stoddard would express frustration with the apathy she found among principles and educators over the cause of “scientific temperance instruction” in America’s public schools.[7]

An emerging division within temperance agitation had been apparent for some time. By 1893, the WCTU had competition, though often friendly, from the ASL. Founded at Oberlin College, once a hotbed of abolitionist fervor, the ASL continued the tradition of Oberlin social reform tinged with evangelical zeal. The ASL experienced remarkable success in fostering local option legislation for prohibition in various states, then the rising tide of a movement for national prohibition. At one point, according to the Ohio Historical Society, the ASL was producing more than 40 tons of anti-liquor material per month.

The twin impulses of moral suasion and legislative social reform did not always mingle as comfortably as Mary H. Hunt had hoped. The Ohio Historical Society website on the ASL points out that its leaders Wayne Wheeler and Ernest H. Cherrington disagreed about strategy; Wheeler argued for a legal push focused on rigid enforcement of the Volstead Act, and Cherrington argued that “educating children about the evils of alcohol would prevent the consumption of liquor and the [flouting] of the law in the future.” Such a rift may have weakened the ASL and created an opening for critics of Prohibition (“wets”) to prevail by 1933.[8]

Post-Prohibition historians tend to judge the long-term wisdom of the movement for national prohibition as culminating in the failed experiment of the constitutional amendment that held sway from 1920‒33. What remains less explored is the educational underpinning that made such an amendment even possible and allowed restriction on such a popular activity to last a full thirteen years. Indeed, the educational dimension of the temperance movement may offer both positive and negative lessons about how to procure long-term societal change through persuasive means. It is a cautionary tale about the selective use of science to buttress the case for social reform. This side of the story must counterbalance the preponderance of attention given by historians to the legal and enforcement side of the Prohibition story that seems to capture the public imagination.[9]

Whereas the WCTU was a multipronged approach to social reform and “home protection,” by the end of the nineteenth century the ASL had become the leading vanguard of “single-issue politics” that is, in various forms, still with us today. The League supported politicians who favored prohibition, irrespective of party or how they stood on other social reform issues. The ASL became remarkably adept at manipulating politicians as prohibition’s power increased in the first two decades of the twentieth century. With regard to the ASL, Norman H. Clark writes: “The league, with its background of pietist ambitions in a nation rushing toward bureaucratic manipulation, became a lens through which the various and diffuse energies of Prohibition, evangelical Christianity, feminism, social purity, and political reform could be brought into sharp focus.”[10]

Ernest Cherrington favored enforcement of the Eighteenth Amendment, but was not convinced that enforcement should be the predominant thrust of temperance activism. His energies were turned toward education. Cherrington edited the massive six-volume Standard Encyclopedia of the Alcohol Problem, published by the ASL between 1925 and 1930. Running 2,940 pages, this opus is a fascinating window into the educational/suasionist camp of temperance thought in the mid-1920s, in the heyday of Prohibition. Close by his side was Cora Frances Stoddard, listed on the frontispiece under “Associate Editors.”

A perusal of the relevant entries in Standard Encyclopedia indicates a strategy somewhat akin to Donald Rumsfeld’s “shock and awe” campaign at the inception of Operation Desert Storm. The attempt to overwhelm opponents with detailed facts and figures, including prestigious studies from European universities, is impressive. Other scientists opposed to Prohibition would counter the arguments with their own arsenals of studies, facts, and figures. Indeed, this was a concern expressed in internal correspondence between temperance suasionists.[11]

In the entry for “Alcohol” in The Standard Encyclopedia of the Alcohol Problem are numerous subsections. Section 6, entitled “Alcohol and Heredity” offers a window on the changing notions of heredity as influenced by alcohol, inebriety, and procreation in the early 1920s.[12] According to the Standard Encyclopedia’s biographical sketch on Cora F. Stoddard, she was the author of “the valuable article on Alcohol.”[13]

Beginning with the quip by ancient historian Plutarch, “Drunkards beget drunkards,” Stoddard surveyed the copious literature of the late nineteenth century regarding the question of alcohol’s impact on human heredity. She cited Benedict Morel, the famous French doctor who fathered Degeneration Theory.[14] Concerned about mental deterioration of not merely his patients but of their children, Morel had noted: “Imbecility and idiocy are the extreme terms of the degradation in the descendants of drinkers, but a great number of intermediary stages develop themselves.” Stoddard referred to numerous other physicians after Morel who tied higher infant mortality or imbecility to alcohol and who understood alcoholism as hereditary, naming Lancereaux, Jaccoud, and Baer.[15] She cited a study by Horsley that associated mental deterioration with parental alcoholism. This study classed the symptoms into four categories: (1) idiocy and imbecility; (2) epilepsy; (3) feeble-mindedness; and (4) backwardness. While these categories strike the modern reader as vague and keenly unenlightening, at least some of these terms were regarded as having scientific value at the time.

To back the claim of alcohol’s multigenerational debilitating effects, Stoddard cited studies in asylums, hospitals, and homes for the intellectually disabled in France, Germany, and England. One sample of this argument runs thus: “Potts found alcoholic ancestry in 41.6 per cent of 250 feeble-minded children in Birmingham, England; and Tredgold found it in 46.5 per cent of the defective children in the Littleton Home, London.”[16]

Stoddard was not a genetic determinist however. Attention to environmental conditions is evident when she insists: “Practically all investigators have observed greater infant and child mortality in the families of drinkers than in sober families, which they explain partly by congenital weakness, partly by the poorer hygienic conditions and lack of care often prevailing in drinkers’ homes.” This emphasis on hygiene actually reflects a debate in the Progressive Era whether scientific education should merely focus on alcohol, or should be broader and focus more on the dangers of microbes and germs.[17] Stoddard pointed out that H. H. Goddard, the American leader in studies of the feebleminded in the United States in this era, found that “infant mortality [is] twice as high in the alcoholic as in the non-alcoholic families—8.5% of the deaths in the latter against 17.6% in the former.” Publication of Goddard’s 1912 study The Kallikaks helped to promote a widespread fear of the so-called “menace of the feebleminded.”[18]

Further evidence that Stoddard was no genetic determinist is found in her citation of studies indicating that during development of sperm cells, at the phase when chromosomes are being formed, “there is extreme susceptibility to certain environmental influences.” She noted animal studies that had discovered the same effect. One particular animal study, by Andriezen, indicated three stages at which alterations of offspring by alcoholism could transpire: “(1) in the sperm or germ-stage before fertilization; (2) after fertilization in the pre-embryonic stage; (3) during the embryonic stage, but means of placental attachment.” This led Stoddard to conclude that this study had the effect of “disproving the assumption that nature has completely safeguarded the primordial germs from injury due to parental conditions.” The essay continues with an exploration of several animal studies indicating the impact of alcohol on hereditary conditions of offspring. Stoddard concluded that “the animal experiments cited give definitive evidence that alcohol is capable of so injuring the mammalian germ-cell that it gives rise to defective progeny.”

In her thirty-two-page booklet The World’s New Day and Alcohol, published in 1929, Stoddard highlighted the efforts by the New York Health Department to reduce alcohol use. The booklet displays pictures with hortatory captions on nearly every page. One page shows a pamphlet by the department asking “Do You Love Babies?” and warns “You Can’t Drink Liquor and have Strong Healthy Babies.” In her comment on this initiative, Stoddard wrote: “There is a chance that the drinker’s child may not be born as sturdy as though the parent had not poisoned by alcohol the life cell.”[19] Whether in the more formal medium of an encyclopedia article, or in the pages of a brief, popular, and attractive booklet for wide distribution, Stoddard sought to get rid of alcoholic liquors by “teaching the people why it is better not to use alcoholic liquors at all—which we call education” alongside the effort to abolish it by law.[20]

Damage to the male reproductive organs is also a topic addressed in the article on “Alcohol” in The Standard Encyclopedia. Terms such as “degeneration of the seminal canals” and “total atrophy of the testicular parenchyma” may have disconcerted some male readers of the article. This appeal to fear is similar to other encyclopedic temperance publications of the era. The influential Cyclopedia of Temperance Prohibition and Public Morals (1917 edition) contained an article on heredity. Noting several studies of alcohol’s effects on dogs and guinea pigs over multiple generations, the authors moved to cadaveric research on human alcoholics, warning: “Very recently autopsies upon drinkers have revealed that when tuberculosis and similar diseases have failed to cause atrophy of the testicle and otherwise injure the reproductive power, the constant consumption of alcohol has the power to do so.”[21] Such an evocative visual image was intended to stoke fear over the damage being done to future children and future generations symbolized by that unfortunate and now ineffectual organ.

Stoddard ended her article on “Alcohol” by warning that “hereditary effects in man, and, therefore, racial deterioration, can follow either from single intoxications or from chronic alcoholism.” The state of intoxication would affect not merely the brain of the individual, but the “cells of the ovaries and the testicles” and thus the future of the human race itself. The shift from discrete and limited fact-claims of scientific research to broad sweeping claims about social conditions and policy ramifications is one of the more striking features of the scientific temperance literature of figures like Stoddard and Cherrington.

One key motivation for Stoddard’s studied use of scientific argumentation is evident in the concluding pages of the “Alcohol” article. Stoddard and the ASL sought to reinforce in medicine the trend away from the practice of doctors’ prescribing alcohol as a drug. After surveying changing views of alcohol in the medical field over the previous decades, Stoddard triumphantly cited the 1917 statement on the practice by the American Medical Association (AMA). Upon concluding that “the use of alcohol is detrimental to the human economy” and also that alcohol has no therapeutic or scientific value, the AMA declared the following resolutions: “Be it Resolved, That the American Medical Association is opposed to the use of alcohol as a beverage,” and “Be it Further Resolved, That the use of alcohol as a therapeutic agent should be further discouraged.” Notably absent in the article, however, was the AMA’s reversal of this position just five years later, about which Stoddard and Cherrington should have been aware. In 1922, under Prohibition, the AMA, having surveyed its membership on the topic, backtracked on medicinal alcohol. Now it listed several maladies for which alcohol could be therapeutically prescribed. The AMA further objected to any regulation of medicinal use of liquor, calling such “a serious interference with the practice of medicine.”[22]


Science can be a fickle partner for social reform. While scientific argument can be an important component of the moral persuasiveness of any proposed social reform, it cannot sustain such reform for the long haul. Deeper verities must be sought. In hindsight, the attempt to legislate all use of alcohol, even moderate drinking, appears doomed to fail. If there is a moral flaw in the use of alcohol, it is drunkenness, which is prohibited by many religions, but the occasional drink is another matter. Failure to distinguish temperance from abstinence exposed an ever-widening crack in the Prohibitionist ideological armor. Law, whether positive or scientific, is good for exposing human defect; yet apart from something akin to grace mere law offers little by way of resolving moral issues in society. Moral persuasion is better than mere law, but it too needs to be infused with interpersonal dynamics; the mere presence of accurate information on a page is woefully inadequate. Human behavioral recalcitrance is rooted more deeply than any citation of any number of well-researched scientific studies can rectify. The failure of Prohibition is a reminder we must move beyond our modernistic science envy and recover the formative spiritual resources embedded in religious traditions. The movement for social reform that weds itself to science today will be a widow (or a cuckold) tomorrow.


Dennis L. Durst, M.Div., Ph.D., teaches at Kentucky Christian University.



[1] Mary H. Hunt, A History of the First Decade of the Department of Scientific Temperance Instruction in Schools and Colleges of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, 2nd ed. (Boston, 1891), v.

[2] Daniel Okrent, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition (New York: Scribner, 2010), 21.

[3] History of the First Decade, vi.

[4] Margot Opdycke Lamme, “Alcoholic Dogs and Glory for All: The Anti-Saloon League and Public Relations, 1913,” Social History of Alcohol and Drugs 21 (2007): 146.

[5] Jonathan Zimmerman, Distilling Democracy: Alcohol Education in America’s Public Schools, 1880‒1925 (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999), 123‒28.

[6] Standard Encyclopedia of the Alcohol Problem, ed. Ernest Cherrington (Westerville, OH: ASL, 1925), s.v. “Stoddard, Cora Frances.”

[7] Zimmerman, Distilling Democracy, 128‒41.

[8] “Ohio Anti-Saloon League,” Ohio Historical Society, accessed October 16, 2014,

[9] For overviews of Prohibition history, see Okrent, Last Call, 57‒371; Garrett Peck, The Prohibition Hangover: Alcohol in America from Demon Rum to Cult Cabernet (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009), 10‒20.

[10] Norman H. Clark, Deliver Us from Evil: An Interpretation of American Prohibition (New York: Norton, 1976), 93.

[11] Lamme, “Alcoholic Dogs,” 147.

[12] The ensuing material is taken from Standard Encyclopedia, s.v. “Alcohol.”

[13] Standard Encyclopedia, s.v. “Stoddard.”

[14] See Heidi Rimke and Alan Hunt, “From Sinners to Degenerates: The Medicalization of Morality in the 19th Century,” History of the Human Sciences 15 (2002): 74. Rimke and Hunt’s research focuses on British degeneration theorists active in the Vice Society and other modes of moral regulation in the nineteenth century; cf. 59‒88 passim.

[15] Today, the National Institutes of Health states: “Research shows that genes are responsible for about half of the risk for alcoholism. Therefore, genes alone do not determine whether someone will become an alcoholic. Environmental factors, as well as gene and environment interactions account for the remainder of the risk” (National Institutes of Health, “Genetics of Alcohol Use Disorders,” accessed October 16, 2014,

[16] In recent research, “More than fifty family studies have demonstrated that alcoholism runs in families, with risk to first-degree relatives of treated alcoholics estimated at two to four times that in relatives of nonalcoholics.” Further studies using twins separated from genetic parents via adoption indicates, particularly for male adoptees, “those with a positive family history were at significantly higher risk for alcoholism than male adoptees with a negative family history, consistent with genetic contributions to risk for alcoholism” (Encyclopedia of the Human Genome, ed. David N. Cooper [Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2005], s.v. “Alcoholism and Drug Addictions”).

[17] See discussion in Zimmerman, Distilling Democracy, 117‒23.

[18] See James W. Trent, Jr., Inventing the Feeble Mind: A History of Mental Retardation in the United States (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), 163‒77.

[19] Cora F. Stoddard, The World’s New Day and Alcohol (Westerville, OH: American Issue, 1929), 30.

[20] Ibid., 6.

[21] The Cyclopedia of Temperance Prohibition and Public Morals, ed. Deets Picket, et. al. (New York: Methodist Book Concern, 1917), s.v. “Heredity.”

[22] Okrent, Last Call, 195. Okrent suggests fiscal motives were strongly at work in this move.

2 Responses to ““Cora F. Stoddard on the Hereditary Effects of Alcoholism: Prohibitionist Moral Suasionism in Scientific Garb,” by Dennis L. Durst”

  1. gabe

    Well, one tactic has not changed:

    go after the young, nowadays that would include pre-K indoctrination centers where all sorts of nonsense is embedded in the minds of our young!


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