The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 36
Mr. Chairman, Ladies, and Gentlemen,—The object of this lecture is to lay before you in a clear and popular manner the effects of alcoholic liquors upon the animal economy; but, in order to prepare your minds for a due appreciation of the subject, we must first direct our attention to "stimulants and narcotics" in general. My first step is to explain to you the exact signification of the words "stimulant" and "narcotic," as applied to medicinal agents.
In common parlance, a narcotic means an agent capable of producing sleep, whereas the term stimulant is generally applied to those agents which rouse up the nervous system to a greater exhibition of energy.
If your horse moves slowly, either from laziness or on account of the length of his journey, a prompt application of whip or spur will urge him to make greater exertion. In this case the whip or spur is the stimulant.
If you feel fatigued with walking, or muscular labour of any kind, a glass of beer or a little brandy and water will remove the sense of fatigue, and act as a stimulus to your nervous system, bestowing a feeling of newly-acquired strength, which sends you back to your work almost as fresh as when you started.
If your head feels "stupid" and dull from long study or much mental worry, so that you are quite unable to compel your thoughts to follow the subject in which you are engaged, a glass of wine will immediately enable you to proceed with your work. Such is page 4 the effect of a stimulant; it removes the feeling of laziness or exhaustion, and spurs on the nervous system to renewed exertion.
When the schoolboy runs behind his companion, and administers a prick with an unsuspected pin, he uses a stimulant which liberates an immense amount of energy throughout the entire playground. The two boys at once confront each other in attitude of battle, and, if well matched, their struggle will probably continue until mutual exhaustion compels them to desist. Then as they drag their weary limbs homeward from the village-school, appearing and feeling scarcely able to crawl along, they see rushing towards them a maddened bull from the nearest farmyard. In a moment, as if transformed by the wand of a fairy, they start to their heels and make off as nimbly as ever their legs have carried them. They rush to the nearest wall, and, in the twinkling of an eye, are out of reach of the furious animal. The fear of being gored to death was a stronger stimulant than had yet been applied; under its influence they performed prodigies of strength and fleetness, which a moment previously seemed utterly beyond their power.
And here I desire to impress upon you the fact that a true stimulant imparts no power whatever to the body. It merely compels the brain, or muscles, or other portion of the organism, to liberate the energy which is stored up therein. The whip gives no strength to the horse; the fear of the mad bull infused no new force into the worn-out schoolboys. And I hope to show you that the same is true of all pure stimulants of whatever kind. In particular, I hope to make clear to you that the stimulating power of alcohol, which is the principal substance that will engage our attention this evening, is exactly the same in kind as that of the whip, and that of the terror produced by the bull. A narcotic, on the other hand, does not prime you for fresh exertion; its effect is of an entirely opposite character. Instead of producing a feeling of renewed vigour, it creates a sensation of exhaustion, and induces a pleasant condition of drowsiness, which may or may not be followed by complete unconsciousness. The most familiar example of a drug narcotic is opium—a juice obtained from certain "poppy-heads." Morphia is an active principle yielded by opium, and laudanum is opium dissolved in spirit. So that whether you take crude opium, laudanum or morphia, the same effects, more page 5 or less, are produced, viz., feelings of languor, want of power, and a tendency to sleep.
If you have been reading or writing too long about some interesting question, or should you feel worried and harassed about business, the brain will frequently refuse to cease acting. You go to bed and resolutely close your eyes, but no sleep comes; you count a hundred or a thousand in order to divert your thoughts from the subjects which have engaged your attention during the evening; but even that charm leaves you as wide awake as before. It is in such circumstances that men are tempted to take a dose of morphia or chloral, and the effect is frequently miraculous. In a short time the condition of restlessness is entirely removed, and is succeeded by a comfortable sensation of exhaustion and drowsiness. But the so-called sleep produced by a narcotic is by no means so refreshing as the undrugged repose which is earned by vigorous exercise or labour in the open air. For my own part, I would rather lie awake all night through, than bring on sleep by any drug whatever. If my brain is at any time too active to permit me to enjoy natural slumber, I attempt to repress its activity by the sedative influence of a cold head-bath gently applied; and if this means fail I go out for a short walk in the open-air. The best sleep-producer is open-air exercise. No other bestows such natural repose, or makes you feel so fresh and ready for-work on the following day. Among ladies, tea-drinking in the* evening is a very common cause of sleeplessness. This is due to the stimulating properties of the tea which, in the case of those of nervous temperament, continue to exert their influence for many hours after being taken. Those in whom tea produces this effect ought to drink it much earlier in the evening than is their usual custom, for when its stimulating power is exhausted, a slight narcotic influence follows. In very many cases of confirmed sleeplessness, I have found a complete cure effected by the discontinuance of tea-drinking and the adoption of a short daily walk in the open-air.
So far we have been considering the effects of stimulants and' narcotics upon the nervous system as a whole. Let us now direct our attention to their influence when excited upon a single nerve. A nerve may be regarded as an animated telegraphic wire, which is capable of conveying only a limited number of page 6 messages. The nervous power which enables it to transmit a message is termed irritability, and a portion of this irritability is exhausted in sending every message, so that if you compel the nerve to perform a large amount of work, you will sooner or later find that its energy has become exhausted. In other words, the nerve will have become paralysed, and is unable to convey another message until it has had sufficient time to store up a fresh supply of energy.
This is the reason why you cannot keep a nerve in operation night and day as you can a telegraphic wire. Suppose you administer a stimulant to the animal whose nerve is under observation, you will discover that, after a small dose, messages can be sent along the nerve with greater ease than when no stimulant has been given; but you will also find that the amount of work done by the nerve when under the influence of a "stimulant" is much less than when no "stimulant" has been administered. The "stimulant" has the power of liberating the energy resident in the nervous structure. While this liberation of energy is taking place, work is more easily done; but when the direct effect of the "stimulant" has died away, the exhaustion of the nerve-power is out of all proportion greater than the work performed. And if you administer a sufficiently large quantity of stimulant, you may liberate the entire volume of nervous energy so rapidly that the nerve will be rendered incapable of performing any work whatever. A stimulant, then, does not communicate energy to the nervous system, but has a directly opposite effect, although its primary action exalts the irritability of the nerve tissue, and enables work to be done for a short time with less apparent effort.
Now, I am well aware that this view of stimulus is combated by Dr. Anstie and other able writers. Dr. Anstie held that alcohol not only produced an evolution of nervous energy, but supplied the force necessary for such an exhibition of power; and he believed that this force was generated by the oxidation of alcohol (i.e., its combustion) within the organism. I believe that alcohol is oxidised within the animal body, but that it supplies more than the merest fraction of the force which it calls into operation I most unhesitatingly deny.
To rob a man of a sovereign, give him back a shilling, and page break expect him to be satisfied, would be as reasonable as to suppose that the excessively low form of oxidation which alcohol undergoes within the organism, can possibly supply the amount of energy which its stimulant action liberates.
Those who maintain that alcohol burns within the body with a considerable evolution of energy, ignore the fact, so ably pointed out by Dr. Richardson, that alcohol, immediately on its introduction to the animal body, saturates itself with the water which it finds abundantly pervading all the tissues. Thus, if they would discover how much energy alcohol really generates within the system, they must attempt to burn it when saturated with water. Dr. Richardson informs us that under such circumstances the energy is so inconsiderable as to be practically of no avail in the economy.
Moreover, it is abundantly proved that alcohol, unless taken in small doses and at considerable intervals, decidedly lowers the animal temperature—a result which could not follow its administration if it supplied as much energy as it calls forth from the nervous system. Every medical practitioner who is familiar with the use of the thermometer knows that the temperature of those who drink alcohol to the exclusion of ordinary diet, is distinctly lower than that of his other patients. Now, if alcohol really supplied the amount of heat or energy which it is said to be capable of producing, such excessive drinkers ought to exist in a condition of continuous febrile heat.
Many years ago attention was drawn to this point by Dr. F. R. Lees, and it has lately been settled on a scientific basis by Dr. B. W. Richardson.
The opponents of this view of stimulus further argue that if alcohol does not supply energy sufficient to make up for what it liberates, then every successive dose must necessarily produce greater and greater depression, until ultimately death must, in many cases, ensue from excessive liberation of nerve force. And they say that such does not accord with our experience of stimulants in inflammatory and febrile diseases. Now I am fully prepared to say that my experience of the treatment of fever and inflammation by large doses of stimulants is precisely what has just been referred to—viz., that every successive dose produces greater and greater exhaustion until death, in very many cases, page 8 takes place from intense nervous depression, just as if the patient had sunk from narcotic poisoning, as is indeed the case.
I do not deny that many cases of fever and inflammation recover after such treatment; but that does not necessarily prove the efficiency of the remedy employed. In the old days of excessive bleeding, only one case out of every three of inflammation of the lungs ended fatally; but the fact that two out of every three recovered was not considered sufficient evidence in its favour to prevent the utter condemnation of the bleeding treatment when it was discovered that only one out of every thirty-two died when no blood was abstracted. When I have in former years been compelled as a junior practitioner to bow to the dictation of some elder in my profession, I have seen patients literally stimulated to death. I am happy to say that such treatment is already on the wane, and that all the better educated men in the medical profession are giving evidence of more faith in nature, and less faith in drugs of every kind.
But we are able to adduce the proof of experience that the doctrine of stimulus herein upheld is in accordance with scientific fact.
I am informed by a soldier who has served many years in India, that he distinctly experienced the exhausting power of alcohol in his own person when undergoing severe marches. One day, for some reason, he did not receive his usual allowance of rum in the middle of his day's march. When he arrived at the halting place, he felt much less exhausted than on previous days—an experience quite opposed to his own expectations and those of his comrades. The next day he and several of his friends determined to keep their rum until the inarch was finished; which they did, with the same result as in the case of my informant on the previous day. They then begged and obtained permission of their commanding officer to drink their rum regularly after the march was ended. These men were not fanatic teetotalers; they did not wish to give up their rum; but they felt its power to exhaust their nervous energy, and thus to unfit them for severe exertion, therefore they preferred to drink it as a sleeping draught when their work was done.
In support of this soldier's statement I am happy to be able to quote the opinion of the commanding officer of this district, General Robertson, C.B. At the Mayor's tea party, in honour of the members of the Church of England Temperance Society, this distinguished officer, in speaking of the possibility of war, remarked, "that it might not be inappropriate to the occasion which had gathered them together to say that he hoped that among the preparations that would be necessary to fit and equip the army, a preparati on hitherto considered necessary would be omitted—namely, the povision of rations of rum for the men. He did not think it did any good at all when work had to be done. page 9 He was not a teetotaler, but whenever he had had any work to do, like a inarch or anything of that sort, he drank nothing but water, and he considered spirits a mere luxury."
Moreover, we are informed by Dr. Parkes, the highest authority on such matters, that in the Ashantee campaign of 1874, "alcohol was injurious to the soldiers while on the march, the reviving effect passing off after, at the utmost, two and a-half miles march had been accomplished, and being succeeded by languor and exhaustion as great or greater than before. When again resorted to its reviving power was less marked; and its narcotising influence was often traceable in the dulness, unwillingness to march, and loss of cheerfulness of the men. Meat extract, on the contrary, in quantities of not less than half an ounce at a time, was not only powerfully reviving, but also sustaining, and so was coffee, though to a considerably less extent." Hannibal and his warlike Carthagenian followers, who came so near to destroying the power of the old Romans, never drank wine when out on military service. These ancient warriors enjoyed their wine as a luxury, and used it as a medicine; but they exercised too much keen observation to be led away by the idea that a narcotic could impart strength to the human frame.
In the face of such well-attested facts and experiences as I have just narrated, it is quite impossible to believe that alcohol adds the smallest amount of energy to any man, either healthy or diseased. Moreover, the evidence just adduced strongly supports the conclusion that it is not merely useless for such a purpose, but that it is positively injurious.
The reason of its baneful effect lies in the fact that it liberates nervous energy more rapidly than it can be made use of, and thus, when the energy is desiderated for further exertion it is not forthcoming. In fact, it spends nerve-power as quickly as it is spent when a man is undergoing hard bodily or mental labour. If, therefore, any man works hard and drinks hard at the same time he will feel doubly exhausted when his day comes to an end.
It is on account of this power to exhaust energy that a large dose of "stimulant" produces the same effect as an ordinary dose of a "narcotic."
How many business men are there, and professional men also, who cannot sleep without their whisky-and-water at bedtime, and who, therefore, take their so-called "stimulant," that it may produce the effects usually ascribed to a "narcotic."
This brings me to the most important piece of information which I have to impart, and for which you must by this time be fully prepared—viz., that every stimulant is a narcotic, and every narcotic is a stimulant.
This may appear paradoxical, nevertheless it is the very essence of truth, and if this truth were generally known it would save page 10 thousands of useful lives annually. But I must leave the consideration of this proposition for a future lecture, as I have already occupied my full time.