Absinthe has always had an ambivalent history, on one hand it was praised as 'The Green Muse' by its devotees, and on the other it was condemned by it detractors as a cause of madness and moral degeneracy.
Claims of mind altering effects are largely anecdotal and the frequently quoted first hand descriptions of its mind altering effects have come from artists and poets who may be expected to describe events in a fanciful manner. Imbibers of alcohol have always described their favourite tipple in extravagant terms, whether it be Burns on whisky or Yeats on wine. The case for its harmful effect is largely based on research on laboratory animals conducted at the behest of the prohibitionist lobby and assumptions drawn from examinations of mental patients in the late 19th century.
The origins of Absinthe can be traced back to the end of the 18th century, when Pierre Ordinaire, a French doctor, used wormwood together with anise, fennel, hyssop and various other herbs distilled in an alcoholic base as a herbal remedy for his patients. Ordinaire's recipe eventually found its way into the hands of Henri Louis Pernod, who established the Pernod fils dynasty when he opened his first distillery in 1805.Very soon 'Extrait d'Absinthe' stopped being a local curiosity and started on its route to becoming a national phenomenon. By the end of the 19th century it had been embraced by the Bourgeoisie and demi-monde alike, with over 2 million litres being consumed annually in France.
Wormwood has had a long history in folk medicine dating back as far as ancient Greece, when it was variously prescribed for rheumatism, jaundice, menstrual pains and as an aid during childbirth, but it only attracted scientific attention in the mid 19th century. At this time there was a powerful prohibitionist lobby gaining public attention throughout France and it should be noted that research was rarely totally independent and was conducted to support a particular position, for or against the banning of alcohol.
The first published evidence for Absinthe's harmful effects in animals dates from the 1860s. This purportedly shows that wormwood oil and alcohol produce a synergistic effect which leads to epileptiform convulsions. Studies of acute alcoholics concluded that Absinthe produced symptoms in humans that were distinct from alcoholic delirium tremens and manifest themselves as epileptic convulsions. However, it is now accepted that these interpretations were oversimplified and alarmist.
Early Scientists concluded that Absinthe caused medical and psychological troubles not associated with the high consumption of alcohol; they argued that Absinthe's deleterious effects were hereditary. The 19th century French scientist, Magnan, was preoccupied with the degeneration of the French race, which he blamed on alcohol and in particular, Absinthe.
çThere should be no surprise at the correlation of Absinthe drinking amongst the destitute and alcoholics, it was the cheapest way of buying strong alcohol. On the other hand, millions of French people enjoyed the occasional glass of Absinthe after work without any ill effects.