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This bewitching poison: alcohol and the Royal College of Physicians

This bewitching poison: alcohol and the Royal College of Physicians

Consumption and regulation, excess and temperance, celebration and destitution, disease and cure.

Alcohol has been associated with celebration, merriment, addiction and illness for centuries. It is part of everyday life for most people within Britain. The exhibit, ’This bewitching poison: alcohol and the Royal College of Physicians’ explored the contradictions of alcohol and its changing role in medicine and society over the last three hundred years.

The exhibit delved into how doctors, campaigners, artists and satirists charter the pleasures and pitfalls of wine, beer and spirits and the way in which the government and the Royal College of Physicians responded. Through the work or artists, doctors and satirists, the exhibit explored 300 years of drinking history, telling stories of consumption and regulation, excess and temperance, celebration and destitution, disease and cure.

Beer street
Beer street (c) Wellcome Trust
The last drop
The last drop (c) Wellcome Trust
Gin lane
Gin lane (c) Wellcome Trust

The RCP has campaigned on alcohol and public health for centuries. Former RCP president Professor Sir Ian Gilmore currently heads the call for a minimum unit price for alcohol. Back in 1725, RCP fellow Dr John Freind presented a petition to the House of Commons criticising the ‘the fatal effects of the frequent use of several sorts of distilled spirituous liquors’. By 1751, Parliament finally restricted the sale of gin, and Hogarth's famous print ‘Gin Lane’ featured in the exhibition alongside its partner ‘Beer Street’.

The exhibition featured volumes from the RCP’s rare book collections detailing medical treatments and recipes throughout history that used alcohol as their main ingredient. A 1660s recipe book lists ‘an excellent drink against the plague’ of herbs, wine and distilled spirit. During the English Civil War, wine was the drink of Royalists and a Charles II Coronation cup for caudle was also displayed. Caudle was a rich, hot drink, popular in Britain from the middle ages onwards. Wine was the main ingredient with cream, egg and spices added to ‘abate the strength of the wine’ and thicken the mixture. 

During the English Civil War and the Commonwealth in Britain, wine was the drink of Royalists and beer of Puritans. Wine became associated with aristocratic gatherings and elaborate toasts in honour of the exiled Prince Charles. This caudle cup therefore has political as well as social significance.

The Gin craze of the 1700s 

Gin was entirely unregulated when it was first introduced to Britain in the early 1700s. By the 1720s, drunkenness and its effects on infant mortality and crime was critical. In 1725 the RCP petitioned the House of Commons:

‘We, the President and College… of physick in London… do think it our duty most humbly to represent that we have with concern observed, for some years past, the fatal effects… of distilled spirituous liquors upon great numbers of both sexes, rendering them diseas'd, not fit for business, poor, a burthen to themselves and neighbours, and too often the cause of weak, feeble, and distemper'd children’. 

We… represent that this custom doth every year increase, notwithstanding our repeated advices to the contrary. We therefore most humbly submit to the consideration of Parliament, so great and growing an evil.’ 

This exert came from the only surviving contemporary copy of the petition. The original was lost in the 1834 fire that destroyed both Houses of Parliament. The exhibit continued through to modern issues associated with drinking, including binge drinking culture, cancers associated with alcohol abuse and even drugs created for people recovering from alcohol addiction.