Seeking the Belladonna Cure

For alcoholics and drug addicts at the beginning of the 20th century, Charles B. Towns must have seemed like a gift from Heaven.  That his famous cure seemed like utter quackery to legitimate medical experts of the time hardly seemed to matter to the countless patients who flocked to Towns' hospital.   At least, they did for a while...

Born on a small Georgia farm in 1862, Charles B. Towns had a wide range of careers ranging from farm hand to insurance salesman. In 1901, he moved to New York City where he became a partner in a brokerage firm (which failed). At some point, he launched himself into a new crusade to combat the twin problems of alcoholism and drug abuse. During this same period, temperance workers like Carry Nation were drumming up support for the anti-alcohol movement that would eventually lead to Prohibition. Drug and alcohol treatment centers sprang up around the United States and substance abuse experts, even ones without medical credentials, could establish themselves as dominant players in the growing field.  Town’s description of his early life is rather vague (likely deliberately).   As a result, it’s hard to say when he came into contact with the mystery benefactor who provided him with the recipe for what was later described as a "sure-fire cure" for alcoholism and drug abuse.  As Towns later described this fateful meeting, he was approached by the still-unnamed source who offered him the cure and announced that they could both "make a lot of money out of it."  Although his own physician told Towns that the "cure" was just a quack remedy, Towns placed newspaper advertisements to recruit drug addicts to take part in his informal testing of the miracle cure. 

Using hotel rooms for his test subjects, Towns even went so far as to restrain the more-or-less willing guinea pigs to keep them from leaving while he worked the kinks out of his formula.  While he remained mum about actual failures, Towns eventually perfected his treatment approach to reduce the suffering involved.   After establishing that his treatment was nearly 100 per cent effective (largely based on the assumption that the unsuccessfully treated ones would return for more treatments), Towns was mystified over the cold reception that he received from the local medical community, most of whom regarded him as a quack.  That failed to stop Towns from establishing the Charles B. Towns Hospital in New York City in 1901.  Located at 293 Central Park West, the hospital became one of the most expensive detoxification hospitals in New York and  a favourite "drying out" spot for the rich and famous (alcoholism and drug use crossed all social boundaries).

Unfortunately, even with his enthusiastic praise for a “cure” that he regarded as being effective in over 90 % of cases, there was still the pesky problem of his lacking medical credentials.

Which brings us to Dr. Alexander Lambert…

One of the most eminent medical doctors in New York City, Dr. Lambert was a professor of medicine at Cornell University and the personal physician of then-President Theodore Roosevelt.   He was also one of the foremost authorities on treating drug addicts and alcoholics with decades of experiencing dealing with alcoholics at New York's Bellevue Hospital.  Exactly why such a respected physician would associated himsef with someone like Towns remains a mystery.   Still, 0nce Lambert lent his name to Towns' miracle remedy, the Towns-Lambert treatment (as it would be called from then on) became the dominant treatment for alcoholics in "drunk wards" across the United States.   And that began with Dr. Lambert's own patients at Bellevue.

In describing the effectiveness of the new treatment, he stated that:  "The obliteration of the craving for narcotics is not a matter of months or weeks . . . but is accomplished in less than five days. The result is often so dramatic that one hesitates to believe it possible."   Though other medical experts were still leery, Lambert's testimonial and his willingness to stake his own professional reputation over something that had been dismissed as a quack remedy was enough for them to take a serious look at Towns' remedy.

Part of the problem was that Charles B. Towns continued to insist that the formula remain his own personal secret.   While the formula eventually became public knowledge, the actual ingredients were enough to make the skeptics leery all over again.  Particularly since the main ingredient was belladonna.   Extracted from the berries of the atropa belladonna bush (also known as deadly nightshade), belladonna is an extremely toxic hallucinogenic.   Among the different alkaloid toxins that would later be derived from belladonna are scopolamine and hyoscyamine.   Though known since ancient times as a deadly poison, it also gained a strange fame as a beauty aid (belladonna takes its name from the Italian phrase for "beautiful woman" and relates to the custom of using belladonna to dilate a woman's pupils to make her appear more alluring).    While also used as a traditional pain reliever for centuries, belladonna was usually mixed in with other ingredients to dilute its toxicity. 

Towns' own recipe called for fifteen percent tincture of belladonna mixed in with with fluid extract of xanthoxylum (prickly ash) and the extract from  hyoscyamus niger.   Since hyoscyamus niger was also toxic (being another nightshade alkaloid), the patients needed to be carefully monitored to make sure they were not poisoned by the belladonna mixture.   The Towns-Lambert cure was usually administered on an hourly basis over two days or more and patients had to be watched for side effects such as a flushed face, dilated pupils, hallucinations, or delirum.   These symptoms were often hard to gauge in many patients since they were frequently  experiencing delirium tremens as well due to alcohol withdrawal.   As part of the  treatment, patients also received cathartics and mercury pills (which were an all-purpose purgative to prevent constipation).  

Once patients were admitted to hospital, Lambert often prescribed chloral hydrate and morphine to put them to sleep before starting them on the Towns-Lambert cure.    After the two-day treatment was completed, it was followed up with a heavy dose of castor oil and and tonics to help patients return to regular foods (the entire course of the treatment, often accompanied by heavy vomitting, was known as "puke and purge").  

Gross as it might have seemed to observers, Lambert was filled with praise for Towns' belladonna cure and he introduced Charles B. Towns to government officials as "an honest man.   No faker".    With Lambert's backing, Towns traveled to China to sell his cure for dealing with opium addicts there.    Lambert wrote to Assistant Secretary of State Robert  Bacon and asked him to make all the arrangements.    By 1908, Charles B. Towns was able to meet with the American delegation to the Shanghai Opium Commission to announce that he had cured more than 4,000 opium addicts  which, along with the political backing that Lambert provided, gave his treatment essentially official  endorsement by the U.S. government.  

Along with  writing three popular books on substance abuse, Towns also became influential in drafting some of the most far-reaching drug and alcohol bills, including the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act of 1914.    Despite Lambert's backing, there were still skeptics who warned that the Towns-Lambert treatment was potentially more dangerous than the disease it was supposed to cure.   Advertising the effectiveness of their cure, Towns and Lambert downplayed the extreme physical distress they caused their patients, and the deaths that could occur.   In one year alone, 130 patients were treated and there were six deaths (suggesting a fatality rate as high as four or five percent).    

Whether because of the death toll or simply due to the increasingly elaborate claims that Towns was making (including using his belladonna cure to treat kleptomania and bedwetting), Charles Lambert eventually broke off all association with Towns and his hospital.   There was also the troubling fact that the "cure" was not as effective as he and Towns had hoped and that numerous patients were returning after failing to quit their drug and alcohol habits.    During the 1920s, much of the hospital's revenue came from repeat business.   Even that repeat business largely ended with the Stock Market crash of 1929 and the resulting Depression since most of their well-to-do repeat patients were wiped out financially. 

After Towns lost his medical expert, his cure lost most of the respectability it enjoyed in the medical community.   Other medical experts weighed in on the problems with the belladonna cure and Charles B. Towns eventually faded into obscurity.    Despite his former fame as an addictions expert, Charles B. Towns would be largely forgotten today except for the identity of one of his patients.

William Griffith Wilson, a.k.a. "Bill W.", had been a severe alcoholic who was admitted to Towns' hospital on four occasions.   Along with his chronic alcoholism, Wilson also suffered from severe depression and had largely hit rock bottom by 1933 when he entered the Towns hospital under the care of Dr. William Silkworth.   Gaining hope from his doctor's theory that alcoholism was a disease instead of a moral weakness,  Wilson eventually realized that he needed to conquer his alcoholism before it destroyed his health and sanity.   Inspired by Ebby Thatcher and other alcoholics who had recovered successfully from drinking problems,  Wilson would later describe how he "saw the light" and underwent a spiritual conversion (how much of that experience was linked to the belladonna and other hallucinogenics he was being treated with at Towns' hospital is open to question). 

Whatever the reason for his spiritual conversion, it was profound enough to inspire an increasing number of alcoholics in New York and the surrounding area to join with Wilson in renouncing alcohol.  By 1938, Wilson and his fellow alcoholics published a book titled "Alcoholics Anonymous" which became the The Big Book for their growing movement (Wilson was the book's lead author).  Charles B. Towns was impressed enough by Wilson to lend him and his supporters $2500 to help publish the book ( a princely sum in those days).    Though Towns' own reputation as a substance abuse expert was on the decline, his support was still crucial during the early days of the AA movement.  Along with offering the unemployed Wilson a job as a lay therapist (which Wilson refused), Towns also helped publicize AA and helped sell hundreds of copies of The Big Book. 

Charles B. Towns died in 1947 and his belladonna cure died with him.   His only lasting legacy is the role he played in launching Alcoholics Anonymous and the various Twelve Step programs founded on AA principles.   Whether that would have been enough for a man who hoped to provide the world with a medical miracle is anybody's guess.



Related Stories

  • Can Ecstasy Help Treat PTSD?
  • Surviving the Essex Disaster (Part 3 of 3)
  • Alfred Russel Wallace and The Medium


The information provided on the is designed to support, not replace, the relationship that exists between a patient/site visitor and his/her health professional. This information is solely for informational and educational purposes. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Neither the owners or employees of nor the author(s) of site content take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading this site. Always speak with your primary health care provider before engaging in any form of self treatment. Please see our Legal Statement for further information.

PsyWeb Poll

Are you currently taking or have you ever been prescribed anti-depressants?
Total votes: 3979