Ross Pomeroy | The good old days: When whiskey was medicine

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.”


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