Just What the Doctor Ordered

During Prohibition, an odd alliance of special interests argued beer was vital medicine

(Cheryl Carlin)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

In 1758, young George Washington decided to seek a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses. He had been stymied in an earlier bid, he believed, by one crucial error: he had not "treated" the voters properly—which is to say, he had not provided them with sufficient alcoholic refreshment. This time, determined to correct his ways, he purchased some 144 gallons of wine, rum, hard cider, punch and beer for distribution to supporters. At more than two votes per gallon, Washington's effort proved successful, launching a rather distinguished career in American politics.

More than a century and a half later, after the American temperance movement had finally won its fight to prohibit alcohol, a considerable percentage of the nation's populace remained staunchly faithful to the founders' tradition, using their ingenuity to acquire any and all available alcohol. They drank hair tonic, flavoring extracts and patent medicine. They patronized speak-easies and bootleggers, helping to boost a nationwide industry of organized crime. They stole liquor from government warehouses. They posed as priests and rabbis to acquire sacramental wine.

And in the early months of 1921, a dedicated group of brewers, physicians and imbibers attempted to convince the U.S. Congress that beer was nothing less than vital medicine. Whatever craven thirsts might have inspired its advocates, the right of physicians to prescribe "medical beer" was the subject of intense national debate, drawing the attention of officials at the highest levels of government and provoking arguments within the American Medical Association and other professional groups.

The arguments had less to do with the number of likely prescriptions (nobody thought beer would replace castor oil) than with the long-term implications of legalizing the consumption of beer. It was what politicians today call a wedge issue: unimportant, even ridiculous, in itself, but with potentially vast legal and cultural consequences. (The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to take up the far more medically significant question of medical marijuana by June of this year.)

As with all wedge issues, technical details masked a host of larger and more far-reaching concerns. Both supporters and detractors understood the so-called "beer emergency" as a referendum on Prohibition itself, a test of the federal government's right to regulate vice and dictate professional standards.

Prohibition, which became the law of the land in January 1920, was the product of enormous middle-class energy dedicated to eliminating sin—gambling, drinking, anarchy, sloth—through legislation. Within this crusade, beer was hardly a neutral substance. As the favored drink of the German and Irish working class, it was shorthand in temperance circles for disorderly taverns, abandoned wives, laziness, unemployment—even, during World War I, anti-Americanism. According to temperance advocates, Prohibition's destruction of the saloon marked nothing less than a triumph of order over disorder, self-control over dissipation.

Yet the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution did not amount to a complete "prohibition" on all forms of alcohol. It banned only the manufacture, sale or transportation of alcohol "for beverage purposes"—in other words, for the pleasure and delight of socializing and inebriation. This directive covered a substantial proportion of the nation's imbibers, to be sure, but it also left open certain loopholes for the framers of the Volstead Act, the federal law that finally put the amendment into effect. It excluded all alcohol—mainly sacramental wines—consumed for religious purposes. Hair tonics, perfumes, toilet waters and other cosmetic products were similarly exempt. Not least, it excluded alcohol prescribed by physicians as a treatment for any number of acute and chronic ills. It was in the context of this last exemption that the fight over "medical beer" unfolded.

Temperance advocates denounced the "medical beer" campaign as an attempt to play fast and loose with the law—an effort, they said, that could lead only to "chaos" and "Bolshevism." Prohibition's opponents, by contrast, urged the measure as nothing less than a matter of life and death. "Since Prohibition went into effect I have been approached by a number of physicians who appealed to me for beer on the ground that it was absolutely necessary for the welfare of their patients," brewer Col. Jacob Ruppert, who owned the Yankees from 1915 until his death in 1939, told a New York Times reporter. "I was not in a position to help them."

The idea of alcohol as medicine was not new. As historian W. J. Rorabaugh wrote, Americans in the early 18th century classified whiskey, rum and other liquors as "medications that could cure colds, fevers, snakebites, frosted toes, and broken legs, and as relaxants that would relieve depression, reduce tension, and enable hardworking laborers to enjoy a moment of happy, frivolous camaraderie." Even the dour Puritan minister Cotton Mather, fearful enough of sin and subversion to help purge Salem of witches, believed that alcohol, used in moderation, could be "a Creature of God."

Once Prohibition took effect, many doctors championed alcohol as medicine. "I have always maintained that every family ought to have an alcoholic stimulant in the house all the time," one physician told the New York Times. "There is nothing more valuable in emergency." The doctor himself always took a drink at the end of the day—"It braces me up," he explained—and often prescribed it for patients stricken with "nerves." For pneumonia, he recommended a shot or two of whiskey.


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus