History of Rehabs

What are the roots of Rehab

We all have heard of someone going to rehab. Whether it is a loved one or loved one of a friend, or a celebrity on TV wonder we ask ‘what is rehab and what does rehab mean?

Rehabilitation is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as ‘the action of restoring someone to health or return to normal life through training and therapy after imprisonment.’

Modern-day treatment for addictions is far removed from days of old when people would take the pledge’ or consume exotic elixirs or mixtures of formaldehyde and honey.

As early as the late 1800’s mental institutions and medical medicine experts attempted to assist those that were considered curable. Many times, the acceptance into hospitals to receive compassionate care was limited to 3 relapses. After three relapses a return to the hospital for most alcoholics and addicts was a commitment to institutions that were more hostile towards the addict’s conditions. Most were labelled as incorrigible and branded as having a hereditary medical disorder. Often they were isolated and written off as being “perpetually condemned to alcoholism.

In 1879 Dr. Leslie Keely promised a cure for alcoholism and addictions with a series of 4 injections per day. His so-called “secret formula” was claimed to contain gold. Later it was discovered to be morphine, arsenic & cocoa. Keely claimed a 95% success rate but even the medical community at that time was wary of his secret “cure”, so it went unpopular as an acceptable treatment. However, Keely’s idea of 28 to 30 days patient care became the acceptable length of stay in a program. It proved to be an effective time frame that is practiced up to today. By 1965 over 200 Keely Institutes were known to exist in Europe and U.S.

Jumping forward to the 1930’s we see little improvement or new innovative techniques in the personal treatment of alcoholics and addicts. Money was tight US during the great depression and hospital beds were rarely wasted on those considered ‘lazy’ or ‘degenerate parasites or morally inferior persons’.

Still most Dr’s had little to no understanding of addiction. Rehabs until the 1960’ consisted mainly of a few beds secretly hoarded in small hospitals by sympathetic Dr’s and nurses or involuntary commitment to institutions for the insane.

We need only look to the early works of Sister Ignatius of early ALCOHOLICS ANONYMOUS ‘(AA) in the late 30’s, to see the negative attitudes of the medical community towards addicts and alcoholics.

However, Sister Ignatius, Dr. Silkworth and Herbert Spencer, and William James, author OF VARIATIONS OF A RELIGIOUS EXPERIENCES: A STUDY IN HUMAN NATURE and noted psychiatrist Dr Carl Jung all were early pioneers in the study and implementation of modern treatment of addictions that helped to shape the treatment industry as we know it today.

In the mid 1949’s one of the original members of AA was Marty Mann, one of the first women to get sober. She sought to educate people about the disease concept of alcoholism. With the enlisted the help of Dr EM Jelnick, pioneer alcoholism researcher and Dr. Howard Haggard of Yale Center for Alcoholic Studies they sought to change the negative perceptions of alcoholics. Their lifetime pursuit resulted in the formation of NCADD, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

NCADD is still a viable Research Institute for the studies on addictions. Bill Wilson co-founder of AA stated,

“No other single agency has done more to educate the public to open up hospitalization, and to set in motion all manner of constructive projects than this one.


Marty Mann died in 1980, a tireless advocate for the services that were needed for the successful treatment of alkies and addicts. She is revered as the first lady of AA, but more importantly, her legacy continues, through the highly recognized works of her baby, NCADD.

Into the 1960’s and 70’s, the treatment Industry was slow to develop modalities that did little to address much more than immediate detox needs and give introduction to 12 step teachings. Most centers were of two species; low end shelter centers like

  • Salvation Army or
  • Rescue Missions or
  • The expensive,
  • Self-pay,
  • Luxurious,
  • Retreat-like places

where the clients every need was catered to according to their desires.

There was another First Lady so to speak, in First Lady Betty Ford, the wife of POTUS Gerald Ford who impacted treatment popularity and acceptance of alcoholism/drug addiction in the early 1980s. Out of her personal need for treatment she acquired the services of Hazelton Treatment Center in Minnesota. Her public admission of her need for treatment was a welcome breath of fresh air as treatment became less of a negative stigma that had been previously seen.