Medicinal Alcohol

Blank prescription. Courtesy of the Rex D. Davis Historical file, ATF Reference Library and Archive.

Courtesy of the Rex D. Davis Historical file, ATF Reference Library and Archive

There was one way to obtain alcoholic beverages legally during the prohibition years: through a physician's prescription, purchasing the liquor from a pharmacy. Physicians could prescribe distilled spirits--usually whiskey or brandy--on government prescription forms. The government was even willing to allow the limited production of whiskey and its distribution when stocks were low.

Since ancient times there were widespread beliefs that alcoholic beverages had medicinal value. Those beliefs spread widely after the development of distillation techniques. Physicians prescribed alcohol for all sorts of ailments, from snake bite to disease control. By the early 19th century, especially in England, there was widespread use of alcohol in medical treatments of various kinds.

The rise of scientific medicine after 1850 led to changing views, and by the end of the century the therapeutic value of alcohol was widely disputed, and discredited among the most advanced practitioners. In 1916 whiskey and brandy were removed from the list of scientifically approved medicines in The Pharmacopeia of the United States of America. In 1917 the American Medical Association even voted, in a contentious meeting, in effect to support prohibition.

The resolution passed in June of 1917 at the annual meeting of the American Medical Association read as follows:

Whereas, We believe that the use of alcohol is detrimental to the human economy and,
Whereas, its use in therapeutics as a tonic or stimulant or for food has no scientific value; therefore,
Be it Resolved, That the American Medical Association is opposed to the use of alcohol as a beverage; and
Be it Further Resolved, That the use of alcohol as a therapeutic agent should be further discouraged.

Nevertheless, the prohibition laws allowed medicinal use of alcoholic beverages through prescription.

(The prohibition laws also allowed the distribution of wine for sacramental purposes.)