The Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which banned the “manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors,” took effect on January 16, 1920. It became known as the National Prohibition or Volstead Act. This new law required physicians to obtain a special permit from the prohibition commissioner in order to write prescriptions for liquor. The patient could then legally buy liquor from the pharmacy or the physician. However, the law also regulated how much liquor could be prescribed to each patient. There were no provisions for the prescription of beer.
In the 1920s, alcohol was known as an ancient therapy that still held medical value with some physicians. It was widely used through the 19th century, although its scientific value was beginning to be questioned by the turn of the 20th century. Part of its popularity was due to its low cost and availability. It was used as a tonic, stimulant, preventive measure, and even as a cure for acute illnesses. Whiskey and brandy were used most often, but use generally varied considerably from physician to physician. Alcohol was prescribed for a variety of ailments including anemia, high blood pressure, heart disease, typhoid, pneumonia, and tuberculosis. Physicians believed it stimulated digestion, conserved tissue, was helpful for the heart, and increased energy. Patients of all ages used alcohol. A common adult dose was about 1 ounce every 2-3 hours. Child doses ranged from 1/2 to 2 teaspoons every three hours.
In addition to their right to prescribe alcohol for its therapeutic value, American physicians also united to protest the encroachment of Congress on their right as doctors to treat their patients with whatever means they deemed necessary. They were not fighting against prohibition, but against the government’s growing jurisdiction over their practice of medicine.
Although the medical community tried to win back their autonomy through numerous court cases, appeals, and resolutions, none of them were successful. Prohibition was finally repealed by the 21st Amendment on December 5, 1933.
This struggle over the Volstead Act marked the first time that the medical community had taken a stance against federal legislation. Previous laws concerning health and medicine had been largely supported by the nation’s medical community. The unsuccessful protest of physicians during prohibition began a new phase in government regulation of medical practice. Modern parallels can be seen in the debate about medicinal marijuana and mandatory health insurance. These laws, like the National Prohibition Act, will affect the interaction of physicians with their patients.
Appel, Jacob. 2008. Physicians are not Bootleggers: The short, particular life of the medicinal alcohol movement. Bulletin of the History of Medicine 82: 355-386.
Rothstein, William G. 1972. American Physicians of the Nineteenth Century. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.