Intemperance | 18th Century Medicine


    About the author

    Edward St. Germain.
    Edward St. Germain

    Edward A. St. Germain created in 1996. He was an avid historian with a keen interest in the Revolutionary War and American culture and society in the 18th century. On this website, he created and collated a huge collection of articles, images, and other media pertaining to the American Revolution. Edward was also a Vietnam veteran, and his investigative skills led to a career as a private detective in later life.


      Editor’s note
      The following is a chapter from the book “Domestic Medicine” written by Dr. William Buchanan in 1785. It provides a fascinating insight into medical knowledge of the time, including the often haphazard and sometimes dangerous techniques used to treat certain injuries and illnesses in the 1700s. We have not edited this book chapter, and as a result it may contain old English spellings of certain words.


      A MODERN author – Rousseau – observes, that temperance and exercise are the two best physicians in the world. He might have added, that if these were duly regarded, there would be little occasion for any other. Temperance may justly be called the parent of health; yet numbers of mankind act as if they thought diseases and death too slow in their progress, and by intemperance and debauch, seem, as it were, to solicit their approach.

      THE danger of intemperance appears from the very construction of the human body. Health depends on that state of the solids and fluids which fits them for the due performance of the vital functions; and, while these go regularly on, we are sound and well; but whatever disturbs them necessarily impairs health. Intemperance never fails to disorder the whole animal oeconomy; it hurts the digestion, relaxes the nerves, renders the different secretions irregular, vitiates the humours, and occasions numberless diseases.

      THE analogy between the nourishment of plants and animals affords a striking proof of the danger of intemperance. Moisture and manure greatly promote vegetation; yet an over-quantity of either will entirely destroy it. The best things become hurtful, nay destructive, when carried to excess. Hence we learn, that the highest degree of human wisdom consists in regulating our appetites and passions so as to avoid all extremes. It is that chiefly which entitles us to the character of rational beings. The slave of appetite will ever be the disgrace of human nature.

      THE Author of Nature hath embued us with various passions, for the propagation of the species, the preservation of the individual, &c. Intemperance is the abuse of these passions; and moderation consists in the proper regulation of them. Men, not contented with satisfying the simple calls of Nature, create artificial wants, and are perpetually in search of something that may gratify them; but imaginary wants never can be gratified. Nature is content with little; but luxury knows no bounds. Hence the epicure, the drunkard, and the debauchee, seldom stop in their career, till their money, or their constitution fails: Then indeed they generally see their error when too late.

      IT is impossible to lay down fixt rules with regard to diet, on account of the different constitutions of mankind. The most ignorant person, however, certainly knows what is meant by excess and it is in the power of every man, if he chooses, to avoid it.

      THE great rule of diet is to study simplicity. Nature delights in the most plain and simple food, and every animal, except man, follows her dictates. Man alone riots at large, and ransacks the whole creation in quest of luxuries, to his own destruction. An elegant writer – Addison – of the last age speaks thus of intemperance in diet: “For my part, when I behold a fashionable table fit out in all its magnificence,I fancy that I see gouts and dropsies, fevers and lethargies, with other innumerable distempers, laying in ambuscade among the dishes.”

      NOR is intemperance in other things less destructive than in diet. How quickly does the immoderate pursuit of carnal pleasures, or the abuse of intoxicating liquors, ruin the best constitution! Indeed these vices generally go hand in hand. Hence it is that we so often behold the votaries of Bacchus and Venus, even before they have arrived at the prime of life, worn out with diseases, and hasting with swift pace to an untimely grave. Did men reflect on the painful diseases, and premature deaths, which are daily occasioned by intemperance, it would be sufficient to make them shrink back with horror from the indulgence even of their darling pleasures.

      INTEMPERANCE does not hurt its votaries alone; the innocent too often feel the direful effects of it. How many wretched orphans are to be seen embracing dunghills, whose parents, regardless of the future, spent in riot and debauch what might have served to bring up their offspring in a decent manner? How often do we behold the miserable mother, with her helpless infants, pining in want, while the cruel father is indulging his insatiate appetites?

      FAMILIES are not only reduced to misery, but even extirpated by intemperance. Nothing tends so much to prevent propagation, and to shorten the lives of children, as the intemperance of parents. The poor man who labours all day, and at night sits down contented with his humble fare, can boast a numerous offspring, while his pampered lord, sunk in ease and luxury, often languishes without an heir to his ample fortunes. Even states and empires feel the influence of intemperance, and rise or fall as it prevails.

      INSTEAD of mentioning the different kinds of intemperance, and pointing out their influence upon health, we shall only, by way of example, make a few observations on one particular species of that vice, viz. the abuse of intoxicating liquors.

      EVERY act of intoxication puts Nature to the expence of a fever, in order to discharge the poisonous draught. when this is repeated almost every day, it is easy to foresee the consequences. That constitution must be strong indeed, which is able long to hold out under a daily fever! But fevers occasioned by drinking do not always go off in a day; they frequently end in an inflammation of the breast, liver, or brain, and produce fatal effects.

      THOUGH the drunkard should not fall by an acute disease, he seldom escapes those of a chronic kind. Intoxicating liquors, when used to excess, weaken the bowels and spoil the digestion; they destroy the power of the nerves, and occasion paralytic and convulsive disorders; they likewise heat and inflame the blood, destroy its balsamic quality, render it unfit for circulation, and the nourishment of the body. Hence obstructions, atrophies, dropsies, and consumptions of the lungs. These are the common ways in which drunkards make their exit. Diseases of this kind, when brought by hard drinking, seldom admit of a cure,

      MANY people injure their health by drinking who seldom get drunk. The continual habit of soaking, as it is called, though its effects be not so violent, is not less pernicious. When the vessels are kept constantly full and upon the stretch, the different digestions can neither be duly performed, nor the humours properly prepared. Hence most people of this character are afflicted with the gout, the gravel, ulcerous sores in the legs, &c. If these disorders do not appear, they are seized with low spirits, hypochondriacal affections, and other symptoms of indigestion.

      CONSUMPTIONS are now so common, that it is thought one-tenth of the inhabitants of great towns die of that disease. Hard drinking is no doubt one of the causes to which we must impute the increase of consumptions. The great quantities of viscid malt-liquor drank by the common people of England, cannot fail to render the blood fizy and unfit for circulation; from whence proceed obstructions, and inflammations of the lungs. There are few great ale- drinkers who are not phthisical: nor is that to be wondered at, considering the glutinous and almost indigestible nature of strong ale.

      THOSE who drink ardent spirits or strong wines run still greater hazard; these liquors heat and inflame the blood, and tear the tender vessels of the lungs in pieces; yet so great is the consumption of them in this country, that one would almost be induced to think the inhabitant’s lived upon them. We may form some notion of the immense quantity of ardent spirits consumed in Great Britain from this circumstance, that in the city of Edinburgh and its environs, besides the great quantity of foreign spirits duly entered, and the still greater quantity which is supposed to be smuggled, it is computed that above two thousand private stills are constantly employed in preparing a poisonous liquor called Molasses. The common people have got so universally into the habit of drinking this base spirit, that when a porter or labourer is seen reeling along the streets, they say, he has got molassed.

      THE habit of drinking proceeds frequently from misfortunes in life. The miserable fly to it for relief. It affords them indeed a temporary ease. But, alas! this solace is short-lived; and when it is over, the spirits sink as much below their usual tone as they had before been raised above it. Hence a repetition of the dose becomes necessary, and every fresh dose makes way for another, till the unhappy wretch becomes a slave to the bottle, and at length falls a sacrifice to what at first perhaps was taken only as a medicine. No man is so dejected as the drunkard when his debauch is gone off. Hence it is, that those who have the greatest flow of spirits while the glass circulates freely, are of all others the most melancholy when sober, and often put an end to their own miserable existence in a fit of spleen or ill humour.

      DRUNKENNESS not only proves destructive to health, but likewise to the faculties of the mind. It is strange that creatures who value themselves on account of a superior degree of reason to that of brutes, should take pleasure in sinking so far below them. Were such as voluntarily deprive themselves of the use of reason, to continue ever after in that condition, it would seem but a just punishment. Though this be not the consequence of one act of intoxication, it seldom fails to succeed a course of it. By a habit of drinking, the greatest genius is often reduced to a mere idiot. It is amazing that our improvements in arts, learning, and politeness have not put the barbarous custom of drinking to excess out of fashion. It is indeed less common in South Britain than it was formerly, but it still prevails very much in the North, where this relic of barbarity is mistaken for hospitality. There no man is supposed to entertain his guests well, who does not make them drunk. Forcing people to drink is certainty the greatest piece of rudeness that any man can be guilty of. Manliness, complaisance, or mere good-nature, may induce a man to take his glass, if urged to it, at a time when he might as well take poison. The custom of drinking to excess has long been out of fashion in France; and, as it begins to lose ground among the politer part of the English, we hope it will soon be banished from every part of this island.

      INTOXICATION is peculiarly hurtful to young persons. It heats their blood, impairs their strength, and obstructs their growth; besides, the frequent use of strong liquors in the early part of life destroys any benefit that might arise from them afterwards. Those who make a practice of drinking generous liquors when young, cannot expect to reap any benefit from them as a cordial in the decline of life.

      DRUNKENNESS is not only itself a most abominable vice, but it is an inducement to many others. There is hardly any crime so horrid that the drunkard will not perpetrate for the love of liquor. We have known mothers sell their children’s clothes, the food that they should have eat, and afterwards, even the infants themselves, in order to purchase the accursed draught.

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