During the Spanish flu pandemic, whisky was medicine | Condé Nast Traveller India | InternationalMay 15, 2021
US emergency military hospital at Camp Funston, Kansas, which saw an early outbreak of the Spanish flu pandemic. Image: National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology, Washington DC, United States/Wikimedia Commons
We may be drinking at home to ease the mental and emotional fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic, but In 1918, during the deadliest pandemic in modern history, people with the Spanish flu were prescribed whisky for medical benefits.
Nearly a year after the first wave of the Spanish flu hit India, an article in The Times of India in April 1919 reported that scientists recommended whisky for flu patients “not only as a stimulant but a sedative too. It induces a sense of well-being and freedom from anxiety, which is certainly a help in resisting infection”. The same piece also observed, “The demand for an increased issue of whisky emanates from those who would use sickness and death rate as an additional argument in favour of a relaxation. If whisky’s sale is permitted, it is certain that much of it will be consumed for other than purely therapeutic purposes.”
US Navy nurse Josie Mabel Brown recalled serving in 1918 at the Naval Station Great Lakes near Chicago: “There were so many patients we didn’t have time to treat them. We didn’t take temperatures; we didn’t even have time to take blood pressure. We would give them a little hot whiskey toddy; that’s about all we had time to do. They would have terrific nosebleeds with it. Some were delirious and some had their lungs punctured. Then their bodies would fill with air. You would see them with bubbles all through their arms. Oh, it was a horrid thing. We had to wear operating masks and gowns all the time. It was 16 hours a day until the epidemic was over. It was March 1919 when I got sick. I ran a temperature of 104 or 105 degrees for days. They put an ice cap on my head, an ice collar on my neck, and an ice pack over my heart. There were 173,000 men at Great Lakes at the time, and 6,000 were in the hospitals at the height of the epidemic. I suppose no one knows how many died. They just lost track of them.”
Research today observes that knocking back a glass or two per day won’t hamper the healthy but. as this Insider piece notes, binge-drinking and excessive consumption of alcohol weakens the immune system; mixing alcohol and painkillers can cause gastrointestinal distress like ulcers and bleeding, and drinks can hamper recovery from an infection or illness.
The Spanish flu claimed 3-5% of the world’s population, estimated between 50-100 million lives, between 1918 and 1920—by when people the world over had developed immunity to the H1N1 virus. “The descendants of the 1918 virus remain today; as endemic influenza viruses, they cause significant mortality each year,” write David Morens and Jeffery Taubenberger in their paper “The mother of all pandemics is 100 years old (and going strong!)”. The virus had “silently seeded around the world, obscuring its place of origin” until it reached pandemicity between July and September 1918. Good nursing care and protective isolation of the ill helped address the Spanish flu but over time, a gene swap could enable a viral strain to switch hosts and become deadly. Pandemics since 1918, such as 2009’s swine flu, have been viral progeny of the Spanish flu, which in turn had a bird flu viral ancestor. SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, is genetically closely related to the bat-borne coronavirus that induced 2002’s SARS epidemic.
When the 1918 pandemic broke out, many countries were focused on World War I. Spain, being a neutral country during the war, didn’t have the same media censorship on revealing the toll of the pandemic on its manpower; even the king acknowledged being infected. Though it didn’t originate in Spain, the early reportage led to the name Spanish flu.
Cultural historian and professor Maggie Andrews notes in this podcast that the effect on the homefront in England “was absolutely monumental, because all the priority was on men involved in war work, there were not enough doctors left, there were not enough gravediggers left, there were not enough undertakers left, there were not enough vicars left, not enough nurses to look after a pandemic like this.”
There were no antibiotics or antivirals in 1918, leaving the door open for a range of treatments from aspirin and strychnine (a poison famously featuring in thrillers by Agatha Christie and Ian Fleming) to Horlicks, Vicks Vaporub and, yes, whisky. The drink had long been used to stave off the cold and in the medical community, as anaesthesia during surgery. In the US, where several states had passed Prohibition laws, residents wrote to the authorities asking for whiskey to be made available strictly as medicine, and eventually, confiscated whiskey was used to treat flu patients in military and civilian hospitals. A liquor dealer in Syracuse was quoted in a 1918 newspaper report: “We have sold more than three times the amount of whisky since the epidemic began. They take it with yeast cakes, with soda, with quinine and with a dozen other things, and some take it straight. Some of our customers say physicians have advised the use of whisky and others say their friends have used it with good results. A great many people who never bought a glass of whisky over the bar in their lives or took it at any time for beverage purposes, are taking it now.” (Incidentally, the Anti-Mask league formed in 1919 to protest the enforcement of mask-wearing in San Francisco, which would become one of the worst-affected major cities in the US.)
Across the ocean in Scotland, newspaper The Southern Reporter observed in October 1918: “the very considerable reduction of sugar and fat in the national diet has weakened the power of resistance of the individual… the whisky drinker says the seat of the trouble is the scarcity of his favourite spirit; across the Border some allege that the poor and thin quality of the beer is at the bottom of it.”
In Ireland, which lost nearly as many to the pandemic as to the war, whiskey was used to cure patients and also as a preventative by doctors and workers who had to move bodies. Social historian Ida Milne noted a family in Dublin where the father kept the teenage son “constantly mildly drunk with whiskey until he pulled through”. She adds that a medical doctor hearing of the story suggested that “small doses of whiskey might help prevent…cytokine storms, where the immune system overreacts”. Another survivor, when he was five years old, “had his first taste of whiskey, in a hot toddy—made from sugar, whiskey and hot water—a taste he said he continued to enjoy for the rest of his life.”