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Education: Higher Education

America’s Mind-Altering History

About the Module


Sarah W. Tracy received her PhD in the History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania. An associate professor at the University of Oklahoma, Tracy teaches courses in the history of medicine, public health, and the life and human sciences, as well as interdisciplinary courses in addiction studies, food studies, and biography. She is author of Alcoholism in America from Reconstruction to Prohibition (The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and co-editor with Caroline Jean Acker of Altering American Consciousness – The History of Alcohol and Drug Use in the United States, 1800-2000 (University of Massachusetts Press, 2004). Tracy is currently writing a biography of physiologist and epidemiologist Ancel Keys (1904-2004), who led an international high altitude expedition to Chile; developed the K Ration for the U.S. military during World War II; conducted starvation and rehabilitation experiments on conscientious objectors to help re-feed Europe after the war; developed the diet-heart hypothesis to account for cardiovascular disease; and wrote bestselling cookbooks.

suggested use

The America’s Mind-Altering History module can be used in American history or history of medicine courses, where a unit on the history of psychoactive drug use in the United States can add new or complementary perspectives on issues, such as:

  • social consequences of immigration, industrialization, and urbanization;
  • ethnicity, class, and gender issues in American life;
  • social reform movements in 19th and 20th-century America;
  • the professionalization of American medicine; and
  • the development of the pharmaceutical industry in 20th-century America.

Alternatively, the unit may serve as a foundation or template for the development of a semester-long course on alcohol and drugs in American society. Many of the issues raised within the module remain salient in contemporary discussions of drug use in America—e.g., the use of pharmaceutical performance-enhancing drugs within American education, sports, and military life; the medicinal and recreational use of marijuana; the determination of an appropriate legal drinking age; and the disproportionate penalties associated with crack vs. powdered cocaine, which map onto very different user demographics. Most college students have never had an opportunity to have a reasoned, historically oriented, evidence-based discussion about drug use in the United States, while most medical students learn very little about the nature of addiction. America’s Mind-Altering History introduces undergraduate, graduate, and medical educators to an interdisciplinary selection of readings, discussion and paper topics, and background sources for further exploration in the history of psychoactive use in the United States.


At the conclusion of a unit or an entire module, students are expected to:

  • Summarize the histories of a variety of psychoactive substances used over the course of the past three centuries in the United States.
  • Outline the ways in which the pharmaceutical properties of each psychoactive substance, as well as factors such as user demographics and the changing contexts of use, affect public policies regulating drugs and alcohol.
  • Describe the complicated physiological, psychological, and social processes of addiction, and the ways in which the concepts of addiction and addiction treatment have evolved over the history of the United States.
  • Possess a more sophisticated understanding of the continuities and discontinuities between licit and illicit drugs, medicinal and recreational drugs, and so-called “hard” and “soft” drugs, and the paths that an assortment of drugs have taken as they enter and exit these classifications over time.
  • Appreciate the ways in which drug use and the perception of drug use intersect with larger social, economic, and political circumstances and priorities in American society.
  • Understand that America has never been and is not likely ever to be “drug-free”.
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