Doctor Give Me The News

I discussed earlier that Victorian medical journals regularly mentioned (beverage) alcohol to aid treatment. Often they contain analyses of various liquors with opinions on therapeutic value, and even advertisements for beer and other alcohol. IPA was a favourite in this regard.

The idea of alcohol as a medicine is very old in Western culture and never entirely disappeared.

In a time when sulpha drugs did not exist and care was rudimentary, folk medicines still held sway in the public imagination, and alcohol was always a star performer. Physicians were not exempt, faute de mieux, perhaps.

To be sure, some of the Faculty resisted this tendency. In the U.S., Dr. Benjamin Rush was an early opponent of excessive alcohol use, especially spirits. But most doctors must have viewed alcohol indulgently, judging again by all the attention given the subject in their media.

As late as 1907, one reads encomia to whisky and beer in The Lancet. Consider the one below for an extra stout from William Dulley in Wellingborough, central England. We are told the alcohol level, 7.32% abv, the gravity, and that the beer is free from acidity. Were that not enough to guide the reader, it is helpfully added that the stout is “soft” and “very malty”.

One can be forgiven for thinking the source is a magazine for sybarites, indeed the writing sounds like a taste note from a consumer beer book…

But it reflected the times. The note in the same page on a Scotch whisky is in similar vein. The writer noted the product was all-malt (not a blended whisky), and compared the sample to a “genuine old brandy” suitable for medical purposes whose legitimacy he took took for granted. Some doctorly restraint was shown by a caution directed to the vendors to cease describing the whisky as “anti-gout and rheumatic”.

So as not to favour malt-based alcohol, the same page noticed the increased availability of South African wines – all the bases were covered.

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What is left of the old idea of alcohol as medicine? Very little. The image probably survives – just – of the St. Bernard rushing to rescue lost mountaineers with keg of brandy strapped under the chin. There is a vague idea still of alcohol as a reviver, a pick-me-up, especially as a hangover cure. Apart from that, all we read of is to avoid alcohol, or limit consumption, due to its many dangers when abused.

Yet, thank of cannabis. It has made inroads in this area, in fact it occupies today the field alcohol formerly held. An idea which once seemed impertinent, “medical marijuana”, is now taken for granted in society at large and in many medical circles. Many, but not all.

Will history repeat itself and kief finally be banned from the medical bag? Time will tell.

Note re images: the two images above were sourced via HathiTrust, here. All intellectual property therein belongs solely to the lawful owner, as applicable. Used for educational and research purposes. All feedback welcomed.

3 thoughts on “Doctor Give Me The News”

  1. I had Meantime’s recreation. It had a definite iodine note to it. Maybe that’s a psychological cue – if it tastes of iodine, it must be good for me. The power of suggestion?

  2. A very interesting article. I’m sure the hospital in Greenwich used to serve its patients medicinal porter too. Meantime Brewing (in Greenwich) recreated it.
    I also recall an item on a TV panel show on the BBC called QI which is well researched. It claimed that the reason virtually every medication states “not to be taken with alcohol” isn’t because alcohol would negate the effects of the medication, but it was originally to stop men recovering from an STD from going out, boozing again and re-contracting the disease through intercourse.

    • Thanks Alec, lots to ponder. It’s not easy to know why porter/stout had that medicinal and curative reputation, extending too to nursing mothers. It wasn’t particularly sweet or “nourishing” in relation to mild ale, say. Perhaps the taste reminded some of medicine? Could the colour have had something to do with it?

      Gary

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