Schirber Lecture to trace development and use of alcohol

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November 17, 2017

Patrick McGovern

Patrick McGovern in the Lower Egyptian Gallery of the Penn Museum, with the largest sphinx in the Western hemisphere to his side and columns of the 13th c. B.C. Merenptah palace behind him.

Photo credit: Alison Dunlap

The historical development and use of alcohol will be discussed during the 2017 Schirber Lecture.

Author and educator Patrick McGovern will present “Uncorking the Past: Alcoholic Beverages as the Universal Medicine before Synthetics, Pros and Cons” at 7 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 7, at Pellegrene Auditorium, Saint John’s University.

The lecture is free and open to the public. A book signing will follow the presentation.

McGovern is the scientific director of the Biomolecular Archaeology Project for Cuisine, Fermented Beverages and Health at the University of Pennsylvania Museum in Philadelphia, where he is also an adjunct professor of anthropology.

In his lecture, McGovern will take participants on a journey through time to the dawn of brewing. Early beverage-makers likely marveled at the magical process of fermentation. Their amazement grew as they drank the mind-altering drinks, which were to become the medicines, religious symbols and social lubricants of later cultures.

However, fermented beverages also became the bane of humankind when over-indulged in.  While healthful in moderate amounts, as genetically laid down in the Palaeolithic period and demonstrated by recent medical studies, the widespread availability of alcoholic beverages today, exacerbated by modern mass production, can have serious, even fatal, medical and social consequences.

Over the past two years, McGovern has pioneered the interdisciplinary field of biomolecular archaeology. His laboratory discovered the earliest chemically attested alcoholic beverage in the world (ca. 7000 B.C., from China), as well as the earliest grape wine, barley beer, mead and fermented chocolate beverages.

Most recently, McGovern was part of a group which uncovered the earliest biomolecular archaeological and archaeobotanical evidence for grape wine and viniculture from the Near East (ca: 6000-5800 B.C.) during the early Neolithic Period.

McGovern has published three books on ancient alcoholic beverages: “Ancient Wine: The Search for the Origins of Viniculture” (Princeton University, 2003/2006); “Uncorking the Past: The Quest for Wine, Beer, and Other Alcoholic Beverages” (Berkeley: University of California, 2009/2010); and “Ancient Brews Rediscovered and Re-Created” (New York: W.W. Norton, 2017).

The Schirber endowed scholarship and pre-med fund at Saint John’s University was established by Martin ’42 and Rose Marie Schirber of Grand Rapids, Minnesota. Martin Schirber practiced medicine in Grand Rapids during most of his medical career. A number of their sons also graduated from or attended Saint John's.

The purpose of this endowed fund is to provide support for a lecture program intended for students in the health sciences but open to all. One lecture focuses on medical ethics from a pro-life perspective and the other focuses on alcoholism and recovery each year.