A Century Ago, Alcohol Was Legitimate Medicine

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At every doctor's visit, there are a few axioms you're almost guaranteed to hear: Eat healthier, exercise more, and ease up on the alcohol. But, incredible as it may seem, there was a time when the latter -- alcohol -- was considered an altogether beneficial and valuable drug, and it was utilized for a wide range of medicinal purposes.

In the early 20th century, alcohol was viewed as both a depressant and a stimulant, a conflicting label that -- as you can imagine -- grew increasingly difficult to maintain as scientific knowledge promulgated. (Today we know alcohol to be a depressant.) However, at the time, this dual-action reputation reinforced alcohol's positive image within the medical community.

According to the 1907 British Pharmacopoeia, "As a circulatory stimulant the value of alcohol is undoubted; it increases the output of blood from the heart, and slightly raises blood pressure... Its action may be due either to a direct stimulant effect on cardiac muscle, or to the fact that it affords a readily assimilable source of energy".

And writing in the Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine in 1920, William White described alcohol as a "pleasant depressant," one "peculiarly efficacious in inhibiting peripheral impulses, such as pain here, and discomfort there, that it diminishes those trivial worries which bother the sick."

"Alcohol is, I suppose, the most valuable sedative and hypnotic drug we possess for infants and young children," another physician wrote in the same journal.

While today we typically view alcohol as an accompaniment to food, back in the early 1900s medical professionals commonly fed alcohol to patients suffering harsh fevers. In some cases, alcohol could comprise as much as 40% of a patient's daily intake! Its high caloric density (seven calories per gram) and the relative ease with which it is absorbed into the bloodstream made alcohol ideal for patients suffering delirium or for those who were otherwise unable to eat. The inebriating nourishment was commonly administered in some variety of spirit, such as whiskey or brandy.

shutterstock_131302163.jpgSpeaking of spirits, of all the forms, brandy was the most highly acclaimed amongst physicians. "[Brandy is] universally regarded as superior... from a medicinal point of view..." The Lancet said in 1899.

The caramel-colored liquor was commonly kept in hospital medical stores, and was found to be particularly useful in resuscitating patients who had fainted. (Of course, unconscious subjects were likely revived from the unpleasant choking sensation brought on by having liquid poured down their mouth, not the pharmacological effects of alcohol.) Brandy was most frequently delivered orally, but was commonly administered by injection, and sometimes even rectally or intravenously.

When Prohibition was enacted in 1920, the use of alcohol as medicine was halted. Frustrated with what they viewed as interference by the federal government in medical practices, a coalition of physicians lobbied Congress and eventually the Supreme Court for the authority to prescribe medicinal alcohol. But by then, scientific research was beginning to refute alcohol's therapeutic effects, and many doctors didn't feel the need to have liquor in their medical arsenal. Concerns were also raised that doctors would themselves become bootleggers. The movement was quickly quashed.

By the 1940s, alcohol's long-term deleterious effects were becoming evident, and only a select handful of doctors clung to the notion of alcohol as medicine.

Today, that notion has all but evaporated. But alcohol in moderation is still a well-known and efficacious remedy for social inhibition!

Primary Source: Henry Guly. Medicinal Brandy. Resuscitation. 2011 July; 82(7-2): 951-954. doi: 10.1016/j.resuscitation.2011.03.005

(Image: Glass of Brandy via Shutterstock)

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