The Keeley Cure

You might  call it the "gold standard" for alcohol treatment...

At the dawn of the 20th century, treating alcoholism was one of the main cash cows for medical clinics across North America.  Actual statistics remain scarce though lectures on the destructive power of "Demon Rum" helped sustain the Temperance movement.  The drive to ban alcohol would eventually foster enough political momentum to pass the 18th Amendment and begin Prohibition in 1919 but that still lay in the future. 

Still, clinics offering "miracle cures" to treat chronic alcoholics became fairly common during the last years of the 19th century and early  20th.  Addiction was already regarded as a major social problems with "inebriates" and "dope fiends" desperate to "take the cure"  (or else forced into it by courts or family members).  Along with Charles B. Towns and his "belladonna cure",  there were other attempts at treatment using equally dubious methods.  

Which brings us to Leslie Keeley...

After serving in the U.S. Civil War as a surgeon, Keeley moved to Dwight, Illinois where he set up a private practice and eventually established his own sanatorium in 1880.  The clinic quickly became established as one of the leading facilities for treating alcoholics and opium addicts as well as the town's main source of employment.   Keeley frequently boasted that alcoholism was a disease and he had the cure for it.   The "Keeley Cure", 220px-Leslie_Keeley[1] as it would be commonly known, was a  closely-held trade secret though he hinted that his central remedy contained "bichlorate of gold" among other ingredients.   While later chemical analysis would prove that Keeley's cure actually contained ingredients such as ammonium chloride, strychnine, atropine, and and cinchona with no gold at all, it was still marketed as the "gold cure" to hopeful patients.   In his own words, Keeley described his treatmentas:

"a reconstructive Nerve Tonic having the Double Chloride of Gold and Sodium for its basis, which will in every case, without exception, forever relieve the nervous system of the acquired necessity for Alcohol, Opium, Morphine, or any other stimulant or narcotic."

Almost immediately, Keeley battled with the American Medical Association which flatly refused to endorse any treatment with unknown ingredients.   While Keeley and his defenders insisted that secrecy was necessary to protect his business and prevent bootleg copies of his cure, he also played on public suspicion of doctors.  "If I should throw open my formula to the world it would not cheapen the cure to the patient one cent," he said in 1891. "Reputable physicians would charge their regular rates, disreputable physicians would charge less in money, but by their dishonest practices would rob the poor drinking man of the thing dearest to him in this world --the chance of complete reform."

Keeley's respected medical credentials and his claim that the cure was 95% effective in treating alcoholism ensured a steady stream of customers.   He also insisted that his treatment represented a complete cure from alcoholism and that his patients could even drink voluntarily afterward since their alcohol use was no longer habitual.  Perhaps the greatest boost for his claims to curing alcoholism came in 1879 when Joseph Medill, editor of the Chicago Tribune decided to challenge Keeley in a novel way.  Medill found six of the most hopeless alcoholics in Chicago and anonymously sent them to Keeley's clinic for treatment.    After the former alcoholics returned to Chicago, Medill publicly ackowledged that Keeley had succeeded.  "The change for the better was so great that I scarcely recognized them,"  Medill wrote.  "They went away sots - and returned gentlemen." 

With Medill's endorsement, Keeley's clinic became so popular that he and his associates,  J.B. Oughton and Major Curtis J. Judd, found themselves at a loss over how to invest the profits from their clinic.  From the one clinic in Dwight, Illinois, Keeley would eventually sell franchises that ranged across the United States, Canada and Mexico (200 Keeley centres in all).    Along with his clinics and numerous patients, Keeley was also a popular writer whose books and pamphlets on alcholism and dug addiction helped boost his public reputation.   Temperance societies praised Keeley's cure and frequently referred new patients to his clinics.  The demand for Keeley's services was so great that his Dwight clinic alone handled over 700 patients a day at the peak of his popularity.  Along with the patients who came in person to Keeley's clinics to "seek the cure", Keeley and his partners also operated a prosperous mail-order business where patients could send away for for the bottles of his patented cure which they could take in the privacy of their own homes.  

Still, Leslie Keeley had more than his fair share of critics.  He had a forceful personality and insisted on absolute control over his clinic as well as ensuring that his name was prominently displayed on all advertising.  According to Frederick Hargreaves, a former supporter who later became one of Keeley's fiercest critics, "he was a man of strong personality. He dominated everybody, or ruled everybody, and made them do as he wanted to do, and if they would not do it, he would make them do it, or have nothing to do with them at all. That was Keeley's character."   Another former associate described Keeley as a "born autocrat."   Still, he was also generous with his time and often took on patients who were too poor to pay his regular fees.  Not that this was too much of a hardship for him given his tremendous success.    He slowly withdrew for the regular daily operation of his clinics during the last years of his life and devoted more time to semi-retirement at the large house he had built in Los Angeles.  By the time of his death from heart failure on February 21, 1900, he was already a millionaire.

Despite the loss of their founder, the Keeley clinics continued to operate for decades in many places though things slowly went downhill after his death.   Oughton and Judd took over the clinic and continue to run things following Keeley's general treatment model.   In the years that followed, the routine for Keeley's patients would be largely unchanged at his different clinics.   According to a 1939 news story published in Time magazine, "Unvarying is the traditional Keeley routine. An incoming inebriate pays $160, plus room and board, must stay for 31 days. His weekly whiskey ration is gradually tapered off: eight ounces the first day, six ounces the second, four ounces the third, none from there on. Four times a day he gets gold chloride injections; every two hours he takes a tonic."   Between 1900 and 1939 alone, more than 100,000 patients were treated at the Keeley clinics although medical doctors became increasingly skeptical of the actual value of Keeley's "cure".   The rise of Alcoholics Anonymous and other self-help organizations also meant a drop in patients as treatment options became available and more questions were raised about the Keeley method's actual validity.

As the demand for the Keeley clinics slowly faded (and skeptics kept raising pesky questions about the "secret" ingredients in the Keeley cure), branch clinics eventually began going out of business.   The last remaining Keeley clinic which, fittingly enough was the flagship treatment facility in Dwight, Illinois, finally closed its doors in 1966.   While the Keeley building that housed the clinic is still standing, there are few other traces left of the industry that had once made Dwight, Illinois famous.  Still, many of the town's older residents can still recall the clinic's glory days.

Was Leslie Keeley a quack?   While his "gold cure" likely worked purely through the placebo effect, he was still a pioneer in the treatment of drug and alcohol abuse.    As one of the first medical doctors to regard alcoholism as a disease rather than a moral problem, he gave alcohol treatment the respectability it never really had before.   His mysterious cure and his autocratic manner may have generated fierce criticism,  but Leslie Keeley still offered hope to thousands of people desperate for a cure and, in many cases, actually succeeded.  It's hard to offer much of a defense of his mystery cure though and he behaved much the same way that modern day purveyors of alternative medicine do.   In Keeley's case however, his success came from filling a treatment niche that was tragically neglected by other medical doctors.   Sometimes, even a "gold cure" is better than no cure at all.








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