The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 36
Doctors And Brandy
Doctors And Brandy.
Sir,—My attention has been called to a letter in your issue of the 20th, from my respected friend, Dr. Maclean, of Netley, under the above title, which demands a reply from me.
So far as I recollect the words spoken by me in Exeter Hall (which, far from forming the leading idea of my speech, occurred only parenthetically, and in explanation of a remark from a previous speaker) were as follows:—"I believe men sometimes die, because doctors give them brandy." Now, we, the clergy, are not immediately concerned in fighting this drink question upon physiological grounds—far from it. Our platform is another and a higher one; as ministers of the Church of Christ we cannot see, unmoved, 60,000 drunkards die annually, with the sure testimony of the Word of God that a drunkard cannot inherit the kingdom of Heaven. We do not hold up total abstinence as a "summum bonum," but as a remedy for a page 4 terrible disease which is sapping the vitals of the nation's power, and sending hundreds from the great working classes, the flower of England's strength, annually into drunkards' graves.
We, the clergy of St. Mary's, have become teetotalers, not as for a moment abandoning the conviction that moderation in all things is the highest line in every community of Christians, but as adapting ourselves to circumstances which are wholly exceptional, and which, therefore, call for exceptional remedies. There are hundreds whose only chance of rescue from this soul-and-body-destroying vice lies in total abstinence, and it is in order to shield, aid, and encourage these weaker ones, if by any means we may save some, that we have become total abstainers, and God has hitherto abundantly blessed our effort.
But it is, at the same time, well that we should also possess some physiological knowledge upon the subject in order to be able to combat the fallacy that the use of alcoholic beverages, however pleasant they may be to all, and morally harmless to many, are conducive to health and strength—whereas it is a fact, supported by the testimony of scores of medical men, that alcoholic drinks no more sustain flagging strength than the whip sustains the weary horse; and as the excellent doctor has seen fit to perform a post mortem upon my defunct speech at Exeter Hall, and has triumphantly elicited the offending sentence, "Men die because doctors give them brandy," I am prepared to stand by the words, though, separated from the context, they hardly represent accurately either what I said or intended to convey.page 5
And first, Professor Maclean himself admits that the question of the use of alcohol in disease is not considered settled by the faculty. Where doctors differ, who, Sir, shall decide? I presume, in that case, private judgment may be allowed some scope.
In advancing proof that non-professional men are justified in holding an opinion contrary to the dogmatic assertion of Dr. Maclean, that "in a vast variety of diseases and injuries there are certain stages of exhaustion when alcohol is the one thing which stands between the patient and death," my only difficulty is to select out of the vast mass of medical evidence at my disposal. (I may here remark that the name and address of any medical man whose opinion I may quote is privately at the disposal of Dr. Maclean, and the quotations may be verified by him.)
And first, I have often before me a letter from an able, intelligent physician, once well known in this neighbourhood, and to whose present sphere of work the Hants Advertiser has penetrated. He says (I quote literally his words)—"Doctors often dose men to death with brandy." "The influence of alcoholic stimulants should be regarded in the same light as that of such potential drugs as prussic acid, and other dangerous spirits. I differ" (he continues) "in toto from Dr. Maclean when he makes so sweeping an assertion that 'in a vast variety of diseases and injuries there are certain stages of exhaustion when alcohol is the one thing which stands between the patient and death.'"
I have also received, since the appearance of Dr. Maclean's letter in the Hants Advertiser, a letter from the son of a medical man of eighty-six years of age, page 6 who, under his father's dictation, writes me as follows —" My father desires me to say that, after a very extensive practice of more than sixty years, he firmly believes that not a single life has ever been saved by alcohol, but, on the contrary, that thousands have been hurried into a premature grave by its use." He continues, "My father has always been a most patient and accurate observer, and, when nearly seventy years of age, so highly were his researches esteemed that he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, which, I need hardly say, is the highest honour that British Science can confer. I mention this that his opinion may have due weight even with a professor."
Another medical gentleman, whose relations are honoured citizens of this town, writes to me as follows:—"I would willingly defer to the larger experience of Professor Maclean, but I think that the cases where alcohol is the one thing between the patient and death could hardly apply, as he says, to a vast variety of eases. I should think them very exceptional."
Again, a physician in large practice, to whom I put the question implied in Dr. Maclean's statement, replies, "In answer to your question, ' Do circumstances arise when alcohol alone stands between the patient and death?' I say No, if you have other medicines at command. I find no case of exhaustion that may not equally be relieved by the administration of ammonia, camphor, or tether, as with alcohol. For the last twelve years I have not administered alcohol in any form."
And now let me make a few quotations to justify my opinion, from the printed statements of medical men page 7 now in full practice, and well able to answer for themselves.
One, who has been a general practitioner for half a century, writes as follows:—" All discoveries in science or philosophy fall into utter insignificance, compared with a discovery that all disorders and diseases can be safely and successfully treated without the use of alcohol, and also that alcohol is not an aliment. The discovery is of a world-wide importance, and the blessings and benefits arising from it are incalculable."
"When a patient is in a sinking state from disease and when a medical man has thought an alcoholic stimulant absolutely necessary to snatch the patient from death, in this case the great danger is, that such a stimulant will extinguish the small spark of life remaining, and that the patient will be destroyed. It was truly said of the Brunonian system, 'that Dr. Brown had made no provision in his system for the recovery of exhaustion arising from the effects of taking alcoholic stimulants.'" Lord Bacon observes:—"If the spirit is assailed by another heat stronger than its own, it is dissipated and destroyed."
What can be more striking than the following words of the same physician as to the use of brandy on the death-bed?—
"It is not unusual to give wine or brandy at the apparent approach of death: such a practice is a mistaken kindness. In many instances patients are sent drunk into another world, having their minds beclouded page 8 and rendered incapable of leaving a dying testimony to their anxious and expectant friends and relatives. I have heard this commented upon as a very just and serious complaint against some medical men. ' Let me go home sober,' said an old lady, when urged on her death-bed to sustain her failing strength with brandy. The medical friend of the late excellent Dr. John Pye Smith, on perceiving a rapid diminution of power, recommended some brandy to his water beverage. This proposal was conveyed to the eye of Dr. Smith in writing, on account of his great deafness. He turned to his wife, and emphatically said, ' Never, my dear; I charge you, if such a remedy be proposed when I am incompetent to refuse, let me die rather than swallow the liquid.'"
"In my practice I have given no stimulants in fever for years. I have never, so far as I can remember, for ten or twelve years, lost a single patient."
"In this hospital for the thirteen months there have been about forty cases of accidents, rheumatic fever, bronchitis, diseases of the joints, &c., which in the ordinary course would be considered to require stimulants, and they have all been treated by the medical men in the town, according to their cases, without any stimulants, except in one case, which died."
"During the thirty-seven years of my practice as a total abstainer, I have never used one drop of alcohol as a medicine. Four years ago, in the town in which I page 9 reside, which contains only 1,800 inhabitants, I was called upon to see 500 cases of typhoid fever. Every one of those 500 cases was treated without one drop of alcohol. And now the question is, did I lose more patients out of that 500 than I should have done had they been treated with alcohol? The statistics of the death by typhoid fever amount to from sixteen to twenty-five per hundred. I lost during that year four per cent., and therefore the fact is established that fever—typhoid fever, one of the worst fevers we have to treat—may be treated, and treated successfully, without the use of intoxicating drinks."
The length to which this letter is extending warns me that I must no longer upon this occasion trespass upon your columns. I believe I have said enough to convince your readers that, in stating that "men die sometimes because doctors give them brandy," I have neither empirically advanced my private opinion as against the dictum of the whole profession, nor made a wholly unsupported statement, nor merited the sarcastic allusion of Dr. Maclean to "intemperate advocates of temperance principles." I have merely echoed the sentiments and adopted the opinions of an increasing and influential section of the honourable medical profession. Further, I must be allowed to remark that, as I utterly disbelieve the fact of alcohol alone standing between a man and death, so also I wholly differ from the learned doctor in his opinion that "Physicians have, as a body, done more to support the cause of temperance than any other class of men in this realm." I believe the exact opposite to be the fact. He and his most learned colleague are honourable, noble ex- page 10 ceptions to the rule. We, advocates of temperance, owe more to the painstaking researches and fearless utterances of Dr. Parkes and Dr. Maclean than words can express, but it is very generally admitted by the faculty that much of the increase of the drinking habits of the age must be attributed to the indiscriminate prescriptions of alcoholic drinks on the part of medical men upon the fast-exploding idea that they impart strength to the system.
A very eminent physician, residing' in Cavendish Square, told me more than a year ago that the increase of "tippling" habits among ladies of the upper classes constituted one of the greatest evils of the day, and that the physicians themselves were chiefly to blame in the matter.
The most eminent medical men have confessed that they have erred in this direction, and will candidly admit that the dangerous system of the perpetual exhibition of alcohol, so warmly advocated by Dr. Todd, and practised by themselves in earlier years, has sent hundreds to their graves.
No one who has read Baron Stockmar's touching account of the death of Princess Charlotte will readily forget his description of her piteous cry from her deathbed, "Doctor they have made vie tipsy "(see page 64 of the "Memoirs of Baron Stoekmar "); and those who know the whole of the sad history of the deathbed of the Prince Consort will understand what I mean when I say it has taught its lessons, and borne its fruit.
"It is a great sorrow to me now to think of, that page 11 for twenty years I have made many families unhappy. I believe I have made many drunkards, not knowingly, not purposely, but I have recommended the drink. It makes my heart ache, even now, to see the mischief I have made in years gone by—mischief never to be remedied by any act of mine."
And the well-known medical declaration, signed by the leaders of the profession not long since, was, I think, a proof that they knew fairly well from what source the drinking habits of the age were receiving an impulse.
My own experience has brought under my notice many cases of reformed drunkards having been utterly thrown back by what I can only call the inconsiderate conduct of medical men, who have for trifling ailments recommended for them what they call "a little support" in the shape of stout, or other alcoholic drinks.
In conclusion, I have to thank Dr. Maclean for thus publicly declaring himself "a sworn foe to spirit drinking," and also for affording me the opportunity of declaring my humble opinion, derived from the researches of able medical men, upon the physiological effects of alcohol. Where doctors differ, I presume individuals have a fair right to study the evidence on both sides, and then judge for themselves, without rendering themselves liable to accusations of empiricism, want of charity, intemperate advocacy, &c.
I have done this as regards the alcohol question. And, in ease my utterance should be of encouragement to the very many who are now looking to me for advice and guidance in this crisis, and who come to me almost daily, sometimes from considerable distances, I take the page 12 opportunity of stating publicly that, if it were the will of God that I were to be to-morrow on my death-bed, and my learned and highly-esteemed friend Professor Maclean at my bedside, and were he as my medical attendant to repeat the statement he has made in your columns, that mine was a case in which "brandy, and brandy alone, stood between me and death," I would cheerfully risk the alternative, and refuse the brandy.
Apologising for the length of this letter, I am, Sir, yours, &c.,
Basil Wilberforce.Deanery, Southampton,
May 25, 1874.