An A-to-Z of Oral History at Columbia | A is for…the Addicts Who Survived Collection by David Courtwright


An A-to-Z of Oral History at Columbia is a monthly posting featuring the people, events, and organizations in the Oral History Archive at Columbia’s collections, as well as behind-the-scenes info about oral history methodology.


Collection title: Addicts Who Survived oral history collection, 1978-1984

Interview contents: Narrators typically discuss their family history, their introduction to drugs, their patterns of use, the economics of funding a habit, arrest history (if applicable), treatment attempts, and use of methadone (if applicable). Because interviewers were not opiate-users themselves, narrators often describe for them the physical sensations of first use, regular use, comparisons between drugs, and withdrawal.

Sample Interview: Oral history interview with Binny, 1980


Of Note:

  • Addicts Who Survived is a rare collection in its focus on drug users. Narrators discuss their addiction in the context of their broader lives, and the collection becomes a source of information on many other aspects of life in 20th century New York City. Harlem and the Lower East Side get particular attention.
  • Narrators describe the Jewish, Italian, Chinese, African American, West Indian, Hispanic, and Eastern European migrant experiences and life in ethnic enclaves in New York City. Black narrators provide considerable information about the Great Migration, life in New York City, and discrimination in the military, particularly during World War II.
  • A pocket of interviews discuss experiences of sailors and merchant marines. Other narrators discuss work in restaurants, laundry, housekeeping, government bureaucracy, factory work, and other jobs that they maintained in the mainstream economy. Performers are well-represented, including musicians, dancers, chorus girls, and circus performers. Jazz musicians, in particular, are interviewed or described by those who met them. Meanwhile, other narrators describe illegal economic endeavors such as card sharking, confidence games, and theft. Many narrators engaged in sex work or pimping and describe the economics of the trade in detail. Many narrators also dealt drugs themselves, providing considerable detail on lives of sellers. Since narrators often became incarcerated for drug and other charges, the collection gives considerable insight into the experiences of prisoners in the 20th century.
  • Treatment, relapse, and maintenance are major topics addressed by the interviews. Since most narrators were contacted through methadone maintenance clinics, many share their experiences with methadone, including medical and social aspects. Key figures in the creation of methadone maintenance programs, such as Vincent Dole and Marie Nyswander, were also interviewed. The interviewers also speak with advocates and participants from therapeutic community programs. Many narrators recall the federal government’s narcotic farm in Lexington Kentucky, experiments with home remedies, and forced detox while incarcerated.

Provenance: The Addicts Who Survived oral history collection is comprised of interviews taken for a New York State Division of Substance Abuse Services-sponsored oral history project, and many were featured in David Courtwright, Herman Joseph, and Don Des Jarlais‘ monograph Addicts Who Survived : An Oral History of Drug Use in America, 1923-1965. Interviews document drug use, enforcement, trafficking, and treatment from the early 20th century through the 1980s. Most narrators were addicts contacted through methadone maintenance programs, but the collection also contains interviews with a small number of medical professionals, addiction experts, law enforcement, and addicts located through therapeutic communities.

The Addicts Who Survived oral history collection came about with an unexpected observation in 1979. Researchers at the New York State Division of Substance Abuse Services noted an increase in elderly participants in the city’s methadone maintenance programs. The agency recognized that these individuals would have unrecorded insights into the history of drug use and enforcement in the 20th century and, being aged in their sixties to eighties, might not defy the odds much longer. They decided to undertake an oral history project, enlisting historian David Courtwright, sociologist Herman Joseph, and social psychologist Don Des Jarlais. This team received lists of potential narrators from methadone clinics. They began contacting the oldest narrators first and working down to subjects in their fifties with long addiction histories. Ultimately, the team would also interview medical professionals, addiction experts, law enforcement, and addicts contacted through therapeutic communities. Interviewers worked with a set of core questions as a jumping-off point. The topics addressed included narrators’ personal background, onset of addiction, experience with addiction, methadone use, and the narrator’s circumstances at the time of the interview. Through the lens of the individuals interviewed, this book explores drug use, trafficking, enforcement, and rehabilitation during a period of strict prohibition, led by the federal government’s drug czar Henry J. Anslinger. Recognizing the research value of the complete and unedited interviews, Courtwright, Joseph, and Des Jarlais donated the interviews to Columbia University’s Oral History Research Office.

Behind the archival scenes:

Use cases:

  • The collection served as background research for Professor Courtwright’s inclusion in the National Public Radio program Throughline, which focused on the U.S.’ opioid crisis.

Access: Columbia University affiliates can listen to these interviews online in the Digital Library Collection by logging in with their UNI. Non-Columbia affiliates can make an appointment in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library reading room to hear the interviews and read transcripts. Information for ordering a limited number of interview transcripts and audio can be found by reviewing the The Oral History Archives at Columbia FAQ.

Additional resources: