22 July 2020

Whiskey Prescriptions During the Spanish Flu

Confiscated whiskey from a box car, January 10 1919.
From UDSH. Colorization by ColorSurprise
In 1918, a common medical treatment of the Spanish Flu in was the prescription of whiskey by doctors.

When the Spanish Flu hit Utah in 1918, it was already a dry state and had become the 24th state to adopt statewide prohibition in 1917. But that did not mean that liquor was hard to come by in SLC as there was a continuous stream of bootleggers bringing it in from Nevada and Wyoming. Consequently, there was quite a bit of confiscated booze in the custody of the SLC police.

By 1918, the medical community was divided on whether whiskey was beneficial for influenza or any other medical condition. Alcohol had been dropped from the list of standards by the U.S. Pharmacopeia in 1916 and the American Medical Association (AMA) discouraged the use of alcohol as a medicine.

Even by 1922 when the AMA surveyed its members 51% believed whiskey to be a necessary therapeutic agent believing alcohol helped stimulate the heart and respiratory system while others believed the sedative effects made the patient more comfortable.

So, it is not surprising that in Nov 1918 SLC physician Dr. T. O. Duckworth and other members of the medical community convinced Utah Governor Simon Bamberger, SLC Public Safety Commissioner Karl A. Scheid, and SLC Chief of Police J. Parley White to issue an emergency order to distribute confiscated whiskey to the ill for the duration of the Spanish Flu pandemic.

The 3,276 gallons of confiscated whiskey that was originally set to be poured down the drain was now going to be used to combat the pandemic of influenza.

In order to ensure only those infected with influenza received the whiskey a prescription from a doctor was required. Usually a ½ pint would be issued per person and patients must bring their own containers. Doctors could not charge a fee for writing a liquor prescription. Those receiving the prescription were required to sign a ledger. Whiskey would be distributed by the head nurse from the emergency influenza hospital that had been set up at the old Judge Mercy Hospital (located where Judge Memorial High School is now).

According to a SL Trib newspaper article, numerous attempts to obtain liquor were made by those who were not entitled to it using every conceivable variety of excuses. Presumably, most were turned away unless they had a valid prescription.

Sources: SL Trib 1918-11-30, 1918-12-01. And “Amid 1918 Pandemic, Bootleg Whiskey Became a Respectable Medicine” from History.com.

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