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Parent Category: 18th Century History Articles
Category: Medical History
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When you think of a healthy diet and lifestyle, a daily regimen of booze hardly springs to mind. In fact, though, throughout much of history, alcohol was routinely turned to for its supposed medicinal properties.

And yet, we’ve already seen in recent articles that alcohol was widely used in the 18th century not just as a curative, but as a preventative. In fact, in an era where safe and abundant water supplies were few and far between, alcohol was often among your safest beverage options and your most accessible and effective health restorative.

 

But alcohol wasn’t just an elixir of the Enlightenment. Whether you were an ancient Egyptian with a tad of a tummy ache, a medieval monarch with a catching cough, or Renaissance Italian with a dash of dyspepsia, odds are your doctor would prescribe spirits to cure whatever ailed (aled?) ya.

 

The fact is that alcohol has been a staple in the average Joe’s medicine cabinet since long before there even were medicine cabinets. The 18th century was no different, though by this time, some important changes were already on the horizon.

Nature’s Little Miracle?

By the time the 1700s rolled around, humans had been using alcohol for medicinal purposes for, literally, millennia. Alcohol was believed to help ward off everything from the plague to parasites. If you had a sore throat or were worried about something a lot more serious, like cholera, then a shot of whiskey or a snifter of brandy could fix you right up.

 

Alcohol was also thought to aid in digestion, help the body fight pneumonia, revive a person in a state of collapse from shock. Port was often prescribed to help convalescing patients recover faster, and those suffering from “nervous” conditions were given alcohol as both a sedative and a pain reliever. 

 

And it wasn’t just Mommy’s or Daddy’s little helper, either. Beer was a staple in children’s daily diets as well, especially with the morning breakfast when it was thought to aid in digestion and fortify the fortunate little rugrat through the rest of the day.

 

Even George Washington, of cherry tree and Founding Father fame, once asserted the benefits of “strong liquors” in helping armies keep healthy and strong. Talk about a perk of enlistment!

Something in the Water?

In the 18th century, alcohol wasn’t used only for fun or for medicine after you’d already fallen ill. It was also considered to be an effective preventative of disease. In particular, it is thought to be a safer alternative to water.

 

And with good reason, as it turns out. Water supplies in the 1700s weren’t exactly state-of-the-art, after all. Waterborne diseases were common and deadly. Alcohol sufficed just fine to wet your whistle while keeping you away from all that contaminated water.

 

Nowadays, of course, indulging in alcohol without being sufficiently hydrated is, to say the least, a bad idea. The surest way to be felled by a hangover after a night on the town is to not drink enough water before or after imbibing, especially if the darker, more potent libations are your drink of choice.

In the 18th century, though, even if they may not have had an abundance of clean water to keep the hangover hammers away, they were typically able to avoid the consequences of overindulgence in other ways. For example, most alcoholic drinks were consumed with substantial meals, and, when alcohol was taken medicinally, it was generally done in small, carefully controlled amounts or in the form of tonics like Aquavit and Chartreuse.

 

Best of all, unlike most other beverages in the 18th century, alcohol could be made and stored with relative ease. Even wine, among the most “fragile” of the spirits when it comes to storage, could be kept for years if done properly. Storage in a cool, dark place was the key, no other fancy technologies needed.

Not So Fast

While physicians across Europe and the US were still routinely prescribing alcohol for medicinal purposes in the 18th century, some doctors were already beginning to sound the alarm. In 1725, the Royal College of Physicians issued a warning against the potentially fatal effects of drink, including the risk of developing “intemperate” habits. By the late 1700s, alcohol was being increasingly linked not only to addiction but also to poverty and crime.

 

And yet, despite these growing concerns, alcohol continued to play a regular role in medical care into the early 20th century. It’s not very surprising, really, because the medicinal use of alcohol is based on the idea of the body as a whole, integrated system.

 

A small tincture of spirits, a tiny draught of liquor, was thought to be able to restore balance in the body’s internal systems. This is reminiscent of many forms of complementary and alternative medicine used today, which typically incorporate natural substances to support immune health, overall physiological functioning, as well as mental calmness and pain relief.

 

There’s even some evidence from modern science to support this, including numerous studies that suggest that a small amount of alcohol daily, can improve heart health. Red wine, for instance, is not only rich in antioxidants, but it’s also believed to lower unhealthy cholesterol.

The Takeaway

Alcohol isn’t just something you enjoy when you’re out partying with friends and family. For centuries, alcohol has been used both for health and for pleasure. The 18th century was no exception. Not only did alcohol provide a sometimes safer alternative to unsanitary water systems, but it was also easier and safer to store than other beverages. And, no matter what might ail you, from plague and cholera to stomach upset and general melancholy, there was surely an ale for that. By the late 1700s, though, the party was starting to draw to a close, as doctors increasingly began to sound the alarm about the dangers of overuse and the potential for addiction. Despite this, though, alcohol continued to be a preferred curative into the 20th century and is still thought to have certain health benefits. But only when you’re counting by the glass, not the bottle — or the keg!

 

About the Author:
Frankie Wallace contributes to a wide variety of blogs and writes about many different topics, including politics and the environment. Wallace currently resides in Boise, Idaho and is a recent graduate of the University of Montana.