Auction Finds

Medical prescription for Prohibition whiskey

When I think of Prohibition, I don’t think of ready access to whiskey, but of a time when the government tamped down on the stuff. I’ve read about this era in the country’s history, and seen movies of the speakeasies that cops raided and mob figures controlled, along with the trade in illegal booze.

So at auction recently, I was surprised to find a form encased in clear plastic that had come straight from the years of America’s flirtation with temperance. On first glance, I could tell that it was a doctor’s prescription of some sort, but it bore the names of the U.S. Treasury Department and the Internal Revenue Service across the top. Now, that was unusual.

prohibitiion medical prescription for whiskey
The patient Frank of Virginia City, NV, got this prescription for one pint of whiskey from his doctor.

The prescription appeared to have been written on Oct. 26, 1920, by a doctor in Virginia City, NV, for his patient Frank. It apparently was filled because it was signed by the pharmacist at a drugstore that didn’t seem to be too far from where Frank lived. A notation on the form stated that the prescription could not be refilled.

This is what the doctor prescribed:

Whiskey 1 pt

Sig  ℥ ii tid

Surprisingly, it wasn’t hard to read the doctor’s writing, but I couldn’t figure out the abbreviations. So I went sleuthing. Deciphered, the form prescribed one pint of whiskey, with the instructions for the pharmacist and the patient (sig) that Frank take two ounces (℥ ii) three times a day (tid). Some other forms I found on the web used the word spiritus frumenti – Latin for “spirit of the grain” – which meant whiskey. I suppose that made it more palatable-sounding as a medicine.

prohibitiion medical prescription for whiskey
The official Treasury Department form that doctors and pharmacists had to fill out.

Getting a prescription from a doctor, or attending church and imbibing sacramental wine secured by your minister were among the legal ways to drink whiskey during Prohibition. Doctors and ministers were excluded from the law.

The 18th Amendment in 1920 forbid the manufacture, sale and transport of alcoholic beverages, ushering in 13 years of Prohibition in the United States. Folks could not get their drink-on legally, so speakeasies, rural stills and other avenues for procuring booze sprang up – along with an underground market that kept it flowing. One newspaper apparently spelled out the restrictions in the new law.

With a special permit, doctors could legally prescribe the stuff – whiskey, brandy, wine and later beer - and patients could pick it up at the local drugstore. Doctors charged about $3 for the prescription, and the pharmacist, $3 to $4 to fill it. The limit was one pint every 10 days. That amounted to two cups of whiskey – which indeed was temperance for some folks, I’m sure.

prohibitiion medical prescription for whiskey
The dosage of whiskey prescribed by the doctor.

For years – dating back to ancient China, Egypt, Greece and Rome – alcohol had been used for medicinal purposes. During the 18th century, it was said to cure and treat all sorts of ailments, including colds, snakebites, broken legs and depression, along with making folks just feel good and happy.

During the Civil War, whiskey was given to soldiers for pain, and who hasn’t seen many a TV western where someone took a swig before having a leg cut off or a bullet removed. I suspect the whisky got them so drunk that they couldn’t feel anything.

On the web, I found Prohibition prescriptions for bronchitis, general debility (loss of strength), chronic myocarditis (heart disease) and anorexia. One doctor prescribed 1 ½ ounces of whiskey to be taken in eggnog. Although the limit for adults was one pint every 10 days, some doctors apparently prescribed more.

prohibitiion medical prescription for whiskey
The lower left of the form shows the signature of the pharmacist who filled the prescription.

The law was met with resistance from some doctors, who bristled at the idea of the government encroaching on their practices and telling them what they could and could not prescribe for their patients. This was in opposition to the stand of the American Medical Association, which deemed alcohol unsupportable as medicine and supported prohibition of it.

The 18th amendment was repealed in 1933, and folks could buy whiskey freely again – whether they were sick or not.

 

 

Related posts:

  1. The medical illustrations of Frank Netter MD
  2. Buying old dusty bottles of whiskey
  3. Artifacts from a prominent doctor’s office

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