By Dr. Philip Norrie, MBBS, MA, MSc, MSocSc (Hons), PhD, MD (cand)
In the 18th century, doctors frequently prescribed wine for medicinal purposes. The leading English physician of his day, Dr. William Heberden (1710-1801), advocated the use of wine to benefit one’s health. As a result, the use of wine as a medicine increased in popularity among English doctors and in the medical profession internationally. Thomson’s “London Dispensatory” (1818) contained a chapter on wines, which included ten formulas for medicinal wine.
Hospitals regularly used wine as a medicine. For example, the single biggest expenditure of Leicester Hospital in England in 1773 was for wine for its patients. In Germany, at the Alice Hospital in Darmstadt, between October 1870 and early April 1871, 755 patients consumed 4,633 bottles of white wine, 6,332 bottles of red wine, 60 bottles of champagne and 30 dozen bottles of port, besides some superior white wine and Bordeaux. Oh, to be sick in those days!
The first large-scale use of wine as a preventative medicine was associated with the settlement of Sydney, Australia in 1787. John White, the English surgeon in charge of the health of all the convicts, soldiers, sailors and free settlers on board the First Fleet sailing from England to found the settlement, insisted on having wine available to maintain the health of everyone during the six-month voyage. The tradition of using wine as a medicine during voyages from England to Australia continued until 1868 when transportation of convicts from England ended.
During the 19th century, well-regarded physicians continued to endorse the use of wine as medicine. Between 1863 and 1865, a series of articles by Dr. Robert Druitt about the medicinal virtues of wine appeared in the Medical Times Gazette. In 1873, the series was published in a book entitled “A Report on the Cheap Wines from France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Greece, Hungary and Australia.” In the book, he concluded, “The Medical Practitioner should know the virtues of wine as an article of diet for the healthy and should prescribe what, when, and how much should be taken by the sick.” Of note, Dr. Druitt was talking about preventative medicine—incorporating wine as part of the diet for the healthy. His book was followed in 1877 by “On the Uses of Wine in Health and Disease” by Dr. Francis Anstie, a physician at the Westminster Hospital in London. Dr. Anstie argued against the opponents of wine stating that its medical use was “established by widespread custom” and therefore not subject to discussion. Even the great French physician Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot (1825-1893), the Father of Neurology, who wrote a ten-volume encyclopedia of current European medical treatments titled “Traite de Medecine,” included many wine prescriptions. An endorsement of wine by one so famous as Charcot was not to be taken lightly.
Throughout history, alcoholic beverages served as a safe alternative to water, which was frequently polluted or infected with cholera or typhoid, and to milk, which was often infected with tuberculosis before Pasteurization became mandatory. The great scientist Louis Pasteur (1822-1895), who first proposed germ theory and gave us Pasteurization, described wine as “the most healthful and hygienic of beverages.” Even as late as 1892, Professor Alois Pick of the Vienna Institute of Hygiene recommended adding wine to water to sterilize the water during the cholera epidemic of Hamburg.
By the 20th century, two important developments changed the role wine played in medicine. First, there were huge changes in medicine. Infection was no longer the biggest killer of mankind; that title was assumed by vascular disease—ailments including heart attack, stroke, renal failure and aortic aneurysm. As the average life expectancy significantly increased, people suffered from a whole new group of degenerative diseases such as cancer, diabetes, dementia and arthritis. Also, for the first time, the medical professional understood what caused these diseases, and therefore began to promote preventative medicine. The second development that impacted the role wine played in medicine was the Temperance Movement which gained strength in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It signaled a negative change in the attitude toward alcohol consumption and led many people to reconsider wine’s impact on health and its role in medicine.
By the late 20th century, interest in the therapeutic aspects of wine began to grow as more and more medical studies showed the medicinal virtues of consuming wine in moderation. For example, in 1988, Prof. Charles Henneckens from Harvard Medical School showed moderate alcohol consumption reduced coronary heart disease and stroke in women, and in 1991, Dr. Eric Rimm, also from Harvard Medical School, showed an inverse relationship between alcohol consumption and coronary heart disease. The world’s leading epidemiologist at the time, Sir Richard Doll of Oxford University, said, “When we allow for age, smoking and other known risk factors, the moderate drinkers have the lowest total death rates and the lowest rates for vascular death.”
But it was Prof. Serge Renaud’s landmark “French Paradox” article, which appeared in the Lancet in 1992, that cemented wine’s pre-eminence as the healthiest of the alcoholic beverages when it showed that, despite eating a diet rich in fat, the French people had a lot less coronary heart disease than Americans because they drank wine. Prof. Renaud concluded that “Red wine is the most effective drug yet discovered, for the prevention of heart disease.” This was followed by Dr. Morten Gronbaek’s “Copenhagen Study” published in the British Medical Journal in 1995, which was the first scientific study to divide alcoholic beverages into beer, wine and spirits and then compare their death rates. It showed that spirits drinkers increased their death rate by up to 34%, beer drinkers showed very little change but wine drinkers reduced their death from all causes by a rate of 50%. The recent Zutphen Study from the Netherlands also favored wine drinkers when it showed they lived on average of five years longer than teetotalers.
Now, at the beginning of the 21st century, it seems that wine as medicine has come full circle as current generations come to better understand and appreciate the medical benefits of wine—man’s oldest known medicine.