There’s an interesting exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians at the moment. ‘This bewitching poison’: Alcohol and the Royal College of Physicians is on display at the RCP headquarters near Regent’s Park, and is open until 27 June. I booked for a lecture evening to coincide with the exhibition, and headed there after work last night.
The RCP is the oldest medical college in England, founded by royal charter of Henry VIII in 1518. The current building was designed by Sir Denys Lasdun and opened in 1964. The on-site museum contains many interesting items, including 300 oil and sculptural portraits, the Symons collection of medical instruments in the Treasures Room, the RCP silver collection and the Victor Hoffbrand collection of apothecary jars. The College was given the personal library of William Harvey (1578-1657), who discovered the circulation of the blood, although most of his tomes were lost during the Great Fire of London. The College is also in possession of six rare anatomical tables from Padua, dating from the 1650s, as well as archives containing near-complete records of RCP over the last 500 years. The lectures were held in the Dorchester Library, which contains many volumes of note including some which suffered shrapnel damage during World War II, pointed out to me as I walked in. The College has a long history of reporting and advising on public health, including the recent alcohol minimum pricing debate, making the current exhibition highly relevant.
‘This bewitching poison’: Alcohol and the Royal College of Physicians
When I arrived at the College, I registered, collected my glass of wine and proceeded to investigate the exhibition. It was very interesting, looking at “300 years of drinking history through the work of artists, doctors and satirists”. Alcohol has long been a part of life for people in Britain, and has been seen in both positive and negative lights.
Historically, Britain was a beer-drinking nation, but the arrival of the Romans introduced wine. One result was that wine drinking was associated with high social class, which it still is to a certain extent. Most native Britons drank ale, which from around 1400 often had hops added to produce the stronger drink of beer. For many years, beer was seen as healthy, being drunk on a daily basis as an alternative to water which was not safe to drink for much of Britain’s history. Physicians such as George Cheyne advocated wine in moderation as a tonic – even now, it is uncertain whether a small glass of red wine might prevent against heart disease – and alcohol was often used as a medicine: for instance, the juniper in gin was thought to help prevent the plague.
On a more negative note, the health problems caused or exacerbated by alcohol have been recognised since ancient times. Cirrhosis of the liver was recognised by the Ancient Greeks, while gin was blamed for drunkenness, vice and poverty in the eighteenth century. Temperance campaigners during the nineteenth century encouraged people to sign the pledge and become teetotal. As we move forwards, many campaigners argue that the government needs to take some responsibility for alcohol advertising by the drinks industry, and do more to help combat the negative effects of alcohol.
‘This bewitching poison’: from gin palace to temperance hall
There were two lectures; the first, Dutch courage & mothers’ ruin: The London gin craze, was delivered by Dr Richard Barnett, lecturer at the Universities of Cambridge and London, and Wellcome Trust Engagement Fellow. He has written several books on the subject including The Dedalus Book of Gin, which I have on my bookshelf (as yet unread)!
18th-century London was awash with cheap, fiery gin. William Hogarth railed against it, politicians legislated against it, and doctors blamed it for destroying the health of the nation. Dr Richard Barnett explores the cultural and political realities behind this notorious epidemic of alcohol-fuelled social breakdown.
From the RCP website
I learned a lot in this lecture, including how the increase in gin consumption (which peaked in 1743) frightened those in authority and highlighted the problems with excessive consumption of spirits. In fact Jessica Warner has suggested that there were actually two gin crazes – one of the ‘public’, and one of the ‘pulpit’, decrying the sin of drunkenness. The phenomenon was largely confined to London, particularly the poorer parts such as Soho and Covent Garden. Gin was seen as socially subversive, and inspired Hogarth’s 1751 picture Gin Lane, a vivid and unforgettable picture of degradation and moral degeneration resulting from the consumption of gin. The authorities took action – the first Gin Act in 1729 doubled duty on spirits. It has been suggested that drunkenness “became less Falstaffian, and more Hogarthian” – less convivial and jovial, and more immoral and sinful.
One interesting aspect of the gin craze, I thought, was the case of the man in 1720 who was accused of killing his mother: there was a suggestion that gin contributed although this was probably not true. This link between alcohol and crime made me think of the absinthe craze in 1900s Paris; from what I recall, it inspired similar worries about drunkenness and morality, and I believe there was a similar case where someone was accused of murder, supposedly under the influence of alcohol.
The second lecture, An imperious impulse: medicine, morality and drink in Victorian Britain, was delivered by Dr James Nicholls, research manager at Alcohol Research UK and honorary senior lecturer at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
In the late 19th Century, alcohol was a fiercely contested political issue. While debates centred on crime and the threat to social progress, medical concerns became increasingly important. From defining inebriety to questions over the effect of alcohol on the unborn child, medicine became embroiled in a range of thorny questions with very real political implications. James Nicholls looks at these problems and asks how far they have been resolved today.
From the RCP website
This lecture explored the history of organised campaigns against alcohol, led in the nineteenth century by the temperance movement (c. 1829) and social reformers in general, who argued that it was the duty of the state to intervene. By the period 1880-1910 alcohol had become a big political issue, and behind it was the important question, is alcohol a beneficial substance with the potential to cause harm, or a harmful substance with some benefits?
The concept of addiction has also developed over the years, with the archaic To addict yourself to giving way to the 20th century To become addicted, which has in turn morphed into To become an addict. This illustrates the medicalisation of addiction and the shift in thinking about alcoholism: from being seen as a sin, it has become recognised as a disease.
I really enjoyed these lectures: they gave me a lot to think about, and the accompanying exhibition was really fascinating. The exhibition is free – do check it out if you get a chance.