Before Alcoholics Anonymous, Dr. Keeley's snake oil 'Gold Cure' swept the Upper Midwest. Why?
Over time, Dr. Leslie Keeley’s injection became known as the “Gold Cure,” named for its supposed content. Later analysis cast doubt on the idea that gold was used at all, but a foundational principal of Keeley's treatment centers continues today, in programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous.
An unconventional physician who claimed his gold-based secret injection could cure alcoholism caught the attention of entrepreneurs in Minnesota and the Dakotas in the 1890s.
At the center of the injection-based treatment was Dr. Leslie Keeley, who boldly stated his inpatient course of treatment was the ticket to curing addiction. After opening the first Keeley Institute in Illinois in 1879, Keeley touted the facility’s success, creating a franchise of more than 100 commercial facilities across North America.
The Keeley Institute model incorporated the secret injection treatment, along with group therapy and healthy living. Group therapy is now considered the cornerstone of addiction treatment in programs such as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). But Keeley downplayed that aspect of his treatment, highlighting patients' need for the secret — and pricey — "Gold Cure."
Considering the injection's true ingredients were hidden behind trade secret protections, the contents of the proprietary "Gold Cure" that made Keeley a millionaire remain unknown.
By the 1890s, Keeley Institutes had opened across the Upper Midwest. A facility opened in Sioux Falls, South Dakota , in 1891. A Minneapolis location opened in 1892 . Fargo also became part of the Keeley story, administering the secret injection at its treatment facility, which opened its doors on Oct. 1, 1894.
The 'Gold Cure'
The contents of the injection were shrouded in secrecy, protected by Keeley’s patent. The only hint given to the public was the ingredient Keeley claimed to be the ticket to success: bichloride gold.
Keeley's treatment was snake oil gussied up as legitimate due to Keeley's credentials. There's no scientific evidence of its value. Any value from his treatment methods were to be found in other parts of his program.
Over time, Keeley’s injection became known as the “Gold Cure,” named for its supposed content. Yet later analysis cast doubt on the idea that gold was used at all. While still unknown, various critics who conducted their own analysis of the potion pointed to a concoction that included alcohol, insecticide and apomorphine, among other herbs and chemicals.
The hype surrounding the Keeley Gold Cure was so influential in the late 1890s that it shaped the political conversation surrounding alcoholism, inspiring the Minnesota State Legislature to mandate loans of up to $100 through the inebriate law to anyone in need of the Gold Cure treatment, according to North Dakota State University archives.
That law was later deemed unconstitutional by the Minnesota Supreme Court.
The Keeley movement
Keeley entered the addiction space a step ahead of the rest. At the time, so-called snake oil salesmen, with little to no credentials, were a dime a dozen. Having earned his medical degree from Rush Medical College in Illinois, his credentials insinuated his treatments were founded in scientific fact.
Despite his medical degree, Keeley was widely criticized in the medical community. Many within the field condemned Keeley for not disclosing the ingredients in his injections, claiming it irresponsible to ask physicians to administer medicine without full knowledge of its potential effects.
Critics also claimed that a lack of transparency into the Gold Cure limited opportunity for peer review studies and, if truly successful, replication for the purpose of medical treatment.
For those seeking a miracle, skepticism and warnings from the general consensus medical community didn’t matter.
Keeley’s degree, along with his experience as a surgeon in the military, aided in his efforts to proselytize his miracle cure. By 1879, he opened his first private treatment center in Dwight, Illinois.
The first treatment center served as a model for what would become a global “Keeley Cure” movement — and standardized process for treating addiction at Keeley Institute centers.
When patients — or attendees — first arrived at the treatment center, they were allowed to consume alcohol. Those who were seeking treatment for opioid addiction were set on a schedule that slowly weaned them off the drug.
At the same time, they began receiving four daily injections of the proprietary Gold Cure. The injection was combined with a tonic patients consumed every two hours.
Keeley proponents claimed that, within days, patients would lose their appetite for their source of addiction — that was after experiencing the impact of the “Gold Cure,” which allegedly induced symptoms such as nausea when consumed with alcohol.
The contents of the injections — colored red, white and blue for patriotic flair — were known only to a few. Those who did have knowledge of the true contents of the injections signed a pledge of secrecy, according to “ Slaying the Dragon: The History of Addiction Treatment and Recovery in America ,” written by William White in 1998.
Regardless of the contents of the concoction, the “Gold Cure” grew in popularity as graduates began to sing its praises. Keeley boasted a 95% success rate, measured by the only 5% of previous graduates who returned to the program.
By other standards, the success rate was 50$, according to the NDSU archives.
Gold Cure or group therapy?
Patients not only endured rounds of the injections and digestible elixirs — they were also subject to a schedule that focused heavily on rest, nutrition and group therapy.
Graduates of the program were also encouraged to either return to the facility or become mentors to others seeking treatment through the Gold Cure, a type of accountability relationship now present in many mainstream rehabilitation programs, most notably in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA).
The popularity of the program began to wane when Keeley died in 1900 of a heart condition. In all, the Keeley Institute yielded roughly 400,000 graduates by the time of his death, according to White.
Keeley's partners, John Oughton, a chemist, and Curtis Judd, a salesman, took over when he died. The Keeley Institutes continued to run into the 1930s, but the hype began to dwindle as criticism grew. The prohibition era of the 1920s also led to a decrease in attendance.
Still, the Keeley Institute held on until 1966, when its flagship operation in Illinois closed its doors.
Keeley was alleged to be a millionaire at the time of his death.