Just What the Doctor Ordered

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

(Cheryl Carlin)
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But if many doctors conceded the efficacy of hard liquor, the case of beer was rather more controversial. Beer's champions often pointed to its relaxing qualities, and to its nutritional value. In a lengthy ode to British ale, for instance, one writer suggested that beer was so chock-full of vitamins that it had saved the "British race" from extinction during food-scarce plague years.

Other healers questioned such claims. Dr. Harvey Wiley, a prominent physician and an architect of the nation's first food and drug laws, could barely contain his contempt for those who subscribed to such folk remedies. "There are no medical properties in beer, whatever may be said of it as a beverage," he pronounced in March 1921. "I never saw a prescription which contained beer as a remedial agent."

By 1921, Wiley could point to a great deal of recent scientific evidence to support his contention. In 1916, with Prohibition not yet enacted, the American Medical Association had declared alcohol's supposed medicinal properties entirely unsupported by research. "Its use in therapeutics, as a tonic or a stimulant or as a food has no scientific basis," read the AMA's resolution. The medical profession's official pharmacopoeia no longer listed alcohol as a medicine; to many doctors, and particularly to temperance advocates, this was as good as the final word. (Today, studies suggest that moderate drinking, particularly of red wine, may be beneficial to heart health.)

the man to whom fate and presidential politics bequeathed the duty of deciding the medical beer question was Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. By the time the beer problem crossed his desk in early 1921, Palmer was under attack from civil libertarians for his harsh deportation campaign against foreign-born Communists and anarchists, best known as the "Palmer Raids."

He was also on his way out of office. The previous November, voters had elected Republican Warren Harding to the presidency—a development that meant that Palmer, along with other Wilson appointees, was out of a job. Before leaving office, however, Palmer, under pressure from brewers, determined to make it possible, once and for all, for sick men to get their beer.

On March 3, 1921, shortly before his last day as attorney general, Palmer issued an opinion declaring that the "beverage" clause of the 18th Amendment entitled doctors to prescribe beer at any time, under any circumstances and in any amount they saw fit. Wholesale druggists could take charge of selling beer. He also suggested that commercial drugstores could sell it from their soda fountains—though "never again beer over the saloon bar or in the hotel dining room."

But rather than settling the debate, Palmer's opinion set off a new round of court challenges, squabbles and questions. "Will the druggists become bartenders and the drug store a saloon?" the New York Times asked that November. "Will the doctors become beer dictators and be overwhelmed by those who are thirsty because they are sick, or merely sick with thirst?"

Beer-makers, unsurprisingly, were sure that Palmer had hit upon a perfect fusion of virtue and science. "Brewers Jubilant over 'Medical' Beer," the New York Times reported on March 11. Doctors as a group were perhaps less so—"I don't think doctors are vitally interested one way or another in permission to prescribe medical beer," the counsel of the New York Medical Society explained—but as a group seemed to take satisfaction from Palmer's affirmation of their authority, seeing in it a victory of science over superstition.

Temperance reformers, by contrast, were furious at Palmer's betrayal—a first step, as they saw it, in undermining America's newfound self-control. "Many of the Anti-Saloon League sympathizers fear that the Palmer decision, if accepted, will lead to a loosening of the enforcement laws," read one news report. The Anti-Saloon League (ASL), one of the country's leading temperance groups, was particularly incensed at the suggestion that small children, seated cheerily at the neighborhood soda fountain, would be forced to witness beer's sale and consumption—a prospect which, according to ASL general counsel Wayne Wheeler, "makes clearer than ever the vice in this opinion." (He was joined in his lament by bootleggers, snake-oil salesmen and religious fakes who were loath to see pharmacists hone in on their trade.)

Had Palmer seen fit to restrict the consumption of medical beer in any way—by limiting the number of prescriptions, the amount that could be prescribed or the diseases for which it was sanctioned—organizations like the ASL might well have concluded that the handful of resulting prescriptions were not worth the fight. But the vision of giddy brewers reopening factories to produce millions of gallons of beer seemed too great an assault on their recent victory. "If beer is to be prescribed in any quantity for everybody who is ailing," predicted the New York Times, summarizing congressional opinion, "there will be no beer."


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