Ignored Papers, Invented Quotations: A History of Fetal Alcohol Syndrome

Neonatology. 2021;118(6):647-653. doi: 10.1159/000518534. Epub 2021 Sep 14.


Given the high rate of alcoholism throughout history, its effects on the fetus may have existed for millennia. But, the claim that Greeks and Romans were aware of fetal alcohol syndrome rests on incorrect citations. From 1725, maternal alcohol consumption was associated with retarded fetal growth and neurological anomalies. From 1809, scientists followed Lamarck's theory that the disorders parents acquire during their lifetime are passed on to their offspring. Fetal effects were thought to be inherited mainly from the father. During the 19th century, parental alcoholism became associated with malformations. In 1915, Ballantyne distinguished genetic influence via germ cells from toxin's effect on the embryo. Fetal alcohol syndrome was characterized by Rouquette [Influence de la toxicomanie alcoolique parentale sur le développement physique et psychique des jeunes enfants] in 1957 and Lemoine et al. [Ouest Medical. 1968;21:476-482] in 1968 as consisting of 4 features: (A) facial anomalies (narrow forehead, retracted upper lip, and cupped ears), (B) severe growth retardation (prenatal and postnatal), (C) malformations (limbs, cardiac, and visceral), and (D) central nervous system anomalies (hyperexcitability and mental retardation). But, their studies, written in French, remained disregarded. In 1973, Jones et al. [Lancet. 1973;302:999-1001] reported "the first association between maternal alcoholism and aberrant morphogenesis in the offspring." The history of fetal alcohol syndrome reveals shortcomings in citation practice. Alleged quotations remained unverified, non-English publications neglected, and short quotations taken out of context. Prejudiced by religious and abstinence groups, reports on alcohol damage to the unborn were fraught with emotions, moralizing, social implications, and presentism, the interpretation of past events with present knowledge.

Keywords: Embryopathy; Eugenics; Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders; Fetal alcohol syndrome; Fetopathy; History; Teratology.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Alcohol Drinking
  • Female
  • Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders* / history
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Infant, Newborn, Diseases*
  • Parents
  • Pregnancy