AlcoholBy Sir William Gull, M.D., F.R.S.,
13th July, 1877.
Alcohol as a Medicine,
Alcohol Las but a subordinate, value; and that value is chiefly in its action upon the nervous system as a sedative. Many diseases are now allowed to run their course without alcohol, and when we give it, we do not give it as we did formerly, with a view that it cured the disease, but with a view of calming the nervous system during the course of the disease.
In cases where there is a sound constitution and a young patient, any administration of alcohol might be deemed to be an interference with the natural course of the disease, and would not do good. I believe there is still an error with regard to the value of alcohol in disease. The prevalent error is, that alcohol cures the disease, whereas the disease runs its physiological course irrespective of the alcohol. The advantage of alcohol—if it has an advantage—is its effect on the nervous system for the time being, rendering the patient more indifferent to the processes page 2 going on. I am disposed also to believe, although I think we could not do without alcohol as a drug, that it is still over-prescribed. Under the shock of an injury, or the shock which the system may undergo by an operation, the nervous system has to be deadened, and I believe that alcohol is the best agent for that. It is called a stimulant, but we use it more as a sedative, in the same sense as that in which you would use opium.
In cases of feeble digestion alcohol is sometimes given to stimulate digestion. I should not be prepared to go so far. I should be prepared to advise the use of alcohol on certain occasions when a person was ill; but to say -that persons should drink habitually—day by day—I should not be prepared to recommend. All alcohol, and all things of an alcoholic nature, injure the nervous tissues pro tempore, if not altogether. You may quicken the operations, but you do not improve them. And even in a moderate measure they injure the nervous tissues and are deleterious to health.
Alcohol acts upon the brain, and causes the blood to flow more rapidly in the capillary vessels. I should like to say that a very large number of people in society are dying, day by day, poisoned by alcohol, but not supposed to be poisoned by it.
In the case of inebriates, I should, in most cases, not be afraid to stop the use of alcohol at once and altogether; of course, it depends upon the age of the patient. If there were no likelihood of doing any good at all, it does not matter very much what one prescribes; but if the patient was a young man, whose organs were good, that would be a case in which I should stop it. If a patient came before me as a drunkard, and not as a sick man, I would say, get rid page 3 of the alcohol at once. In the case of an habitual drunkard, to whom drinking had become second nature, I would, when he left it off, recommend nothing beyond good food. It would not at first supply the craving, but it would ultimately overcome it.
I do not see any good in leaving off drink by degrees. If you are taking poison into the blood, I do not see the advantage of diminishing the degrees of it from day to day. That point has been frequently put to me by medical men; but my reply has been, "If your patient were poisoned by arsenic, would you still go on putting in the arsenic?"
I should say, from my experience, that alcohol is the most destructive agent that we are aware of in this country.
Alcohol as a Beverage,
I think that instead of flying to alcohol, as many people do when they are exhausted, they might very well drink water, or that they might very well take food, and would be very much better without the alcohol. If I am fatigued with overwork, personally, my food is very simple. I eat the rasins instead of drinking the wine. I have had a very large experience in that practice for thirty years. This is my own personal experience, and I believe it is a very good and true experience.
I should join issue at once with those people who page 4 believe that intellectual work cannot be so well done without wine or alcohol. I should deny that proposition and hold the very opposite. It is one of the commonest things in English society, that people are injured by drink without being drunkards. It goes on so quietly that it is even very difficult to observe. There is a great deal of injury done to health by the habitual use of wines in their various kinds, and alcohol in its various shapes, even in so-called moderate quantities. It leads to the degeneration of tissues; it spoils the health, and it spoils the intellect.
I think, as a rule, you might stop the supply of alcohol at once without injury. It is said in some cases the brain has entirely gone from leaving drink off suddenly; but that is fallacious, the brain may have gone from previous habits. I hardly know any more potent cause of disease than alcohol, leaving out of view the fact that it is a frequent source of crime of all descriptions. I am persuaded that lecturers should go about the country lecturing to people of the middle and upper-middle classes upon the disadvantages of alcohol as it is daily used.
The public ought to know that of all the diluents or solvents for the nutritious parts of food there is nothing like water. Water carries into the system the nutriment in its purest form.
The Grand Lodge, I.O.G.T.,
New Zealand, South.
Printed at the Evening Stae Office, Bond Street, Dunedin.