When the flu began to invade the United States in 1918, a frightened nation sought an unproven but familiar remedy: whiskey. There was just one problem. More than half of the states had adopted prohibition laws at the time, making alcohol difficult to obtain, if not impossible, at times.
While the citizens of the so-called dry states argued for whiskey to prevent or treat the deadly virus, some ingenious officials found a solution: Free the vast reserves of contraband alcohol that had been confiscated since the entry into force of the laws. national laws. Although some of this contraband was simply poured down the drain, much of it remained locked up as evidence or perhaps for possible repeal.
Newspapers in the United States have reported that military doctors were administering confiscated whiskey from army camps hard hit by the flu. In Richmond, Virginia, two rail cars were reported to have rolled into the besieged Camp Lee. At Camp Dodge, Iowa, where more than 500 soldiers have already died, hundreds of pints have been sent to fight the flu, the newspapers reported.
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The military was largely silent on what it was doing, while pro-ban forces argued that these stories were exaggerated, if not downright false. Some have called them German propaganda, calling the reports “the devilish Hun plot” intended to put American soldiers in danger of lethal alcohol.
But soon after, officials also smuggled their whiskey to civilian hospitals. Omaha, Nebraska hospitals received 500 gallons, courtesy of the local sheriff. The Commissioner of the Internal Revenue Service in Washington, meanwhile, ordered his tax officers in North Carolina to distribute their confiscated whiskey to state hospitals.
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Doctors debate the medicinal merits of whiskey
The medical community was divided on whether the whiskey had any real use in the fight against the flu or something else. The highly appreciated United States Pharmacopoeia, which published standards for prescription and over-the-counter drugs, had removed whiskey, brandy and wine from its lists in 1916. The following year, the House of Delegates of the American Medical Association threw its weight behind the ban, resolving, following objections from some delegates , that “the use of alcohol as a therapeutic agent should be discouraged. “
Yet many doctors continued to recommend and prescribe whiskey for the flu pandemic and a wide range of other illnesses. When WADA started asking doctors about it in 1922, 51% said they considered whiskey to be a “necessary therapeutic agent”. Some doctors believed that alcohol helped stimulate the heart and respiratory system of patients weakened by the disease, while others believed that its sedative effects made patients more comfortable.
Even in states where alcoholic beverages were banned, doctors could often write prescriptions for medicinal whiskey and pharmacists could dispense them – with certain restrictions. In Colorado, for example, doctors were required to obtain numbered prescription forms from the state and prescriptions were limited to four ounces. Doctors in Michigan could prescribe up to eight ounces, but were asked to indicate the number of prescriptions the patient had already received in the past year; the pharmacist then had to send the form to the county attorney. In Indiana, doctors could only prescribe pure alcohol.
Cities with whiskey on hand sometimes gave it directly to anyone with a medical prescription. In Burlington, Vermont, for example, the local police service filled prescriptions for free using the city’s emergency epidemic fund. In Nashville, local authorities distributed 10,000 half-pints of whiskey to residents on prescription.
Some doctors seemed all too eager to reach the prescription book. In Pittsburgh in 1919, four doctors and a pharmacist were arrested in a scheme to sell whiskey to “patients” who had not even been examined. Doctors earned $ 1 for each prescription, while the pharmacist earned $ 5 a bottle for whiskey. The program was so successful, according to newspaper articles, that local smugglers were forced to lower their prices to be competitive.
In the humid states, of course, people were still free to buy whiskey and other spirits as they pleased. The president of a Baltimore roofing company, concerned about the toll the pandemic flu might have on its workforce, bought a huge bottle of rye whiskey and told its workers to help themselves “whenever according to their individual estimate, this could be indicated ”. He said none of his 200 men had fallen ill. That they fell from a roof, he did not say.
No prescription, no problem
Manufacturers of patented over-the-counter drugs, which had not yet been fully regulated by the Food and Drug Administration, also saw an opportunity to earn money. In addition to newcomers like Influenzene and Spanfluenza tablets, many widely advertised preparations that have been around for years have simply added Spanish flu to the list of ailments they claim to prevent, treat or even cure. What many had in common – besides being of little or no medical value – was a high alcohol content.
For example, Tanlac, an elixir that touted itself as “Master Medicine” and claimed to cure just about everything, contained 17% alcohol. And Peruna, one of the best performing patented drugs of the day, contained 28%.
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The ban works
In the meantime, pro-prohibition forces have reportedly become concerned. Would all the news regarding the alleged medical benefits of whiskey defeat their desire to ratify the 18th Amendment and make the ban the law of the land? They did not have to worry. The amendment had obtained all the necessary state votes by January 16, 1919 and came into force a year later.
At the very least, not everyone was satisfied with this result. A soldier on a ship returning from war in 1919 spoke on behalf of many of his comrades when he interrupted a former government official who was delivering a patriotic speech. “Yes, we fought for democracy,” would have shouted the soldier, “but we only got the Spanish flu and the ban.”