Marty Mann: Pioneer in alcohol treatment for women remembered
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marty mann pioneer in alcohol treatment for women remembered

During National Women’s Health Week (May 10-16, 2015) we are reminded of one brave woman who brought alcohol treatment to women and fought to remove alcoholism’s stigma 75 years ago. Margaret “Marty” Mann herself struggled with alcoholism. Born in 1904 into a privileged family in Chicago, she went to the best boarding schools and finishing school in Europe. By age 17, she wrote that she could drink like an adult and handle a lot of alcohol. She was married at 23, divorced at 24 and an alcoholic by 25. After her divorce and her father’s death, Mann went to work.

Her family’s connections and her inheritance allowed Mann to quickly become an American advertising and public relations executive. She was charismatic, intelligent and attractive.  She travelled to Europe where her alcoholism progressed faster than her career success. Her tale of riches to rags is typical of many alcoholics. By age 34, she was back in the United States where she ended up in Bellevue Hospital in New York City after two suicide attempts. She was transferred from Bellevue to a psychiatric hospital in Connecticut and committed for severe alcoholism.

In Connecticut, her psychiatrist introduced her to the new organization called Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) as a possible cure for her suffering. She attended her first meeting at the home of Bill Wilson on April 11, 1938. At the time, only two AA groups existed, one in Ohio and the other in New York. “I went trembling into a house in Brooklyn filled with strangers … and I found I had come home at last, to my own kind,” she said. She began another chapter of AA in Greenwich, Connecticut, in 1939, but still struggled with repeated relapses. About two years after she initially sought treatment, Mann achieved long-term sobriety in 1940.

Redefining alcoholism as a disease

Thereafter, Mann worked tirelessly helping other women achieve sobriety through AA. She openly spoke of her own personal struggles with alcohol, leading the way for others, such as Betty Ford, to do the same. In the 1950s, Edward R. Murrow named her on his list of 10 greatest living Americans. Mann briefly relapsed in 1960, but sobered up again and remained so until her death in 1980.

Mann was inspired by the desire to eliminate the stigma and ignorance surrounding alcoholism, and to encourage the disease model, which viewed it as a medical/psychological problem, not a moral failing. Three ideas formed the basis of her message:

  1. Alcoholism is a disease and the alcoholic an ill person
  2. Alcoholics can be helped and are worth helping
  3. Alcoholism is a public health problem and, therefore, a public responsibility

Mann helped start the Yale School of Alcohol Studies which is now centered out of Rutgers University. In 1944, she founded the National Committee for Education on Alcoholism (NCEA), based on her five-point approach:

  1. Educated the public about alcoholism
  2. Encouraged hospital admission for detoxification
  3. Started local alcoholism information centers
  4. Started local alcoholism clinics
  5. Started alcoholism rest centers for long-term care

The NCAA is now called the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD). Today, NCADD has been a valuable resource for millions of people struggling with addiction for almost 70 years.

Later in the 1960s and 70s the American Medical Association finally agreed to define alcoholism as an illness, and the insurance industry began to reimburse the treatment of alcoholism on par with that of other illnesses. Acceptance of the disease model allowed alcoholics access to the care they deserved. Private and hospital-based treatment programs began to expand dramatically.

Leaving a lasting legacy

Mann’s biographers, Sally and David Brown, called their book “Mrs. Marty Mann, The First Lady of Alcoholics Anonymous.” This title did create some confusion in that she was not actually the first woman to join AA, but one of several. Women were not initially welcome into AA, but her membership was endorsed by Bill Wilson, one of its founding fathers who also became her program sponsor. Mann’s story, titled “Women Suffer Too,” was added to the 2nd and subsequent editions of the famous book Wilson co-authored, titled “Alcoholics Anonymous.”

During her life, Mann wrote two classic books on alcoholism, “Marty Mann’s Primer on Alcoholism” in 1950, which was rewritten and published as “Marty Mann’s New Primer on Alcoholism” in 1958, and  “Marty Mann Answers Your Questions About Drinking and Alcoholism” in 1970. She also wrote the “Marty Mann Papers,” which are available through Syracuse University.

Marty Mann has made an enormous difference in our understanding of addiction. She lessened stigma, increased awareness, emphasized prevention and underscored the importance of intervention and treatment. More leaders like Mann are needed to further decrease the social stigma of addictive disorders.

Sovereign Health of California offers dual diagnosis and treatment for those battling addiction and mental health disorders. To learn about our alcohol rehab treatment programs, call (866) 819-0427.

Written by Dana Connolly, Ph.D., Sovereign Health Group writer

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