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Module 1: Historic Perspectives on Alcohol and Pregnancy

England's Gin Epidemic

Gin Lane, 1751 painting depicting effects of Gin Epidemic Want to sell something? Lower the price. Makes perfect sense - except when it's gin. The Gin Epidemic in England in the 1700s is believed to have led to alcohol-related birth defects. When the gin tax was lifted, the price went down. Drinking went up, and so did infant deaths.2 In 1751, the government imposed sales restrictions.

In time, the problem was recognized more. In 1834, a British House of Commons report stated that "infants of alcoholic mothers often have a starved, shriveld and imperfect look."3 About 30 years later, a French physician described children exposed to alcohol: small head, peculiar facial features, and "nervousness."2

Near the end of the 19th century, many researchers began to examine the effects of alcohol on the fetus. For example, in 1899, Dr. William Sullivan compared the pregnancy outcomes in 120 alcoholic prisoners with 28 of their blood relatives. The infant death rate was 20 percent higher among the women with alcohol problems.2 Such studies continued into the early 20th century.

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