Alcohol has been used for many thousands of years in medicines. Uh, and this goes right back to the Ancient Egyptians, the Ancient Greeks, and the Romans who were using spirits, in particular, to dissolve substances in that wouldn’t otherwise dissolve. Or, alternatively, to just…so they have good keeping power.
So one of those is Absinthe…and so Absinthe comes from wormwood which is a member of the Artemisia Genus of plants. It was used to help digestion and it was also used for intestinal parasites. So if people had roundworms or tapeworm or anything like that then, um, wormwood was thought to be a very good remedy against that.
The other type of alcoholic drink that has often been seen as health-giving in history is wine and, of course, the Romans introduced wine to Britain but then, somewhat later, people started writing about the health-giving benefits of wine. And one of these was Roger Bacon and he encouraged people to drink wine to improve their health. He says it will preserve the stomach, strengthen the natural heat, help digestion, defend the body from corruption, carry the food to all the parts, and concoct the food till it be turned into the very blood.
The recipe that we show in the exhibition is for an excellent drink against the plague. It begins: take two pints of Muscatine or Sach, which were rough sorts of wine and put in its brew and sage, cut small, and stop the bottle. And then later on you add lots of aqua vitae (pure spirits) and then bottle it to keep it for use.
During the 19th century, often medicines had alcohol as a carrier for the medicinal compound which, quite often, was morphine or some sort of opiate. And around 1909 that was banned as an ingredient. In some medicines for children, such as one that we have in the exhibition which is called Atkinsons infant preservative, the morphine has been taken out but it still has about 50 percent alcohol. So the packaging for this medicine says it can be given with the utmost confidence and encourages parents to give this medicine to their babies for teething. And obviously at that time it was a great relief for parents to be able to buy something that didn’t contain morphine. They were assured of that, but they weren’t that worried yet, at the time, about it containing 50 percent alcohol!