Alcohol therapy: medicinal drinking through the ages

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Concoctions of gin and wine were once thought to hold health-giving properties.

For hundreds of years alcohol claimed a prize place among the pills, potions and healing herbs of British pharmaceutical history.

A drop of gin was once advised to ward off the plague, a glug of wine to "defend the body from corruption" and a sip of absinthe to cure the body of roundworms.

Of course all this has changed.

As our understanding of the harms of alcohol on society and the individual has grown, it has given up its place on prescription pads - instead to be superseded by advice to refrain from all but cautious use.

An exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians in London traces its use and sometimes fatal misuse by medical men and women of the past, up to the calls for greater regulation today.

'Over-much guzzles'

One of the earliest records in the many leather-bound books on display is a translation of the work of Roger Bacon, a 13th Century English philosopher and writer on alchemy and medicine.

Image source, Royal College of Physicians
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Roger Bacon suggests alcohol may defend the body from corruption

According to the translation (published in 1683) Bacon suggests wine could: "Preserve the stomach, strengthen the natural heat, help digestion, defend the body from corruption, concoct the food till it be turned into very blood."

But he also recognises the dangers of consuming ethanol in excess: "If it be over-much guzzles, it will on the contrary do a great deal of harm: For it will darken the understanding, ill-affect the brain... beget shaking of the limbs and bleareyedness."

Wine-based concoctions also make frequent appearances in the handwritten domestic cookery books of the 16th to 18th Centuries, sitting alongside tips on general food preparation.

Image source, (C) British Broadcasting Corporation

One recipe for the discerning 17th Century householder recommends an "excellent drink against the plague". Its ingredients include rue, sage and two pints of wine - much more than the UK's daily recommended limits today.

'The last drop'

Caroline Fisher, curator of the exhibition says: "While wine has its place in history as more of a fortifying tonic, spirits were seen in a different light.

"While considered as therapies in their own right, they also served as carriers and preservatives for substances that would be otherwise difficult to bottle and sell."

Absinthe, for example, distilled from herbs such as wormwood, has been documented for use against roundworms and other intestinal parasites for many years.

But according to Dr James Nicholls, of Alcohol Research UK, by the 18th Century spirits such as gin were considered by a growing number of people to be a major cause of drunkenness, poverty and crime.

'Intemperate habits'

In 1725, the first documented petition by the Royal College of Physicians expresses fellows' concerns about "pernicious and growing use of spirituous liquors".

Image source, Wellcome Library London
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By the 19th Century there was growing understanding of the harms of alcohol

A gin craze was sweeping across England, as improved distillation methods together with lax regulation in comparison with wine and beer, meant the spirit was affordable to much of the population.

Yet it was not until the 19th Century that alcohol was regarded as a problem in a consistent way, says Dr Virginia Berridge of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

As Britain became increasingly industrialised and urbanised it needed efficient and time-aware workers, making sobriety a virtue.

Temperance movements began to emerge - at first some advised restrictions on certain drinks only, but over time their stance shifted to call for total abstinence.

And by the mid-19th Century, physicians were involved in temperance movements of their own.

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Absinthe was once used to purge the body of intestinal worms

An 1871 statement from the British Medical Temperance Society, printed in the British Medical Journal said:

"As it is believed that the inconsiderate prescription of large quantities of alcoholic liquids... has given rise, in many instances, to the formation of intemperate habits the undersigned while unable to abandon the use of alcohol in the treatment of certain cases of disease, are yet of the opinion that no medical practitioner should prescribe it without a grave sense of responsibility."

Image source, Royal Pharmaceutical Society
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Atkinson's Infants Preservative - a remedy for teething

Society's views of alcohol and that of the medical community gradually changed, heralded, in part, by an increasing focus on efficiency as World War One dawned, and as scientific advances provided compounds with much greater medicinal potential.

'Cause of death'

Yet one of the most modern pieces to feature in the exhibition is a bottle of Atkinson's Infants Preservative, a remedy for teething babies, dated between 1919-1941.

The packaging reassures parents it can be given "with the utmost confidence" as it had no narcotic content. It does however contain 50% alcohol among its ingredients.

John Betts, Keeper at the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Museum says: "This is perhaps surprising considering what was known about the effects of alcohol by this time.

"But it wasn't until 1941 that legislation in Great Britain forced pharmaceutical manufacturers to list all the ingredients in their medicines."

Over the years the Royal College of Physicians has had a long history of raising awareness of the health damage caused by alcohol.

The college is currently calling for a range of measures, including a fifty pence minimum price per unit of alcohol in the UK and tighter restrictions on marketing and advertising, particularly where children may be exposed to it.

The college says: "Alcohol is a factor in more than forty serious medical conditions, including liver disease and cancer, and one of the major preventable causes of death in the UK."

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