Medicinal Uses

View item information

Dispensary bottle, c. 1905. Courtesy of the South Carolina State Museum.

The use of alcohol for medicinal purposes is documented in writings from ancient Egypt and other early cultures. Alcohol does have “medicinal” properties; it is antiseptic and (in high doses) can be an anesthetic. In ancient times, medicinal properties may also have been ascribed to alcohol in cases where the water supply was not clean, and drinking alcohol was a safer option. Distilled alcohol was also useful historically as a solvent to create medicines from botanicals. Juniper, for example, was believed to be useful in treating fevers and other conditions; gin was initially a medical product.

The alcohol used in creating medicines also served as a preservative. Alcohol was believed to be useful in treating conditions ranging from high blood pressure to tuberculosis. Toward the end of the 19th century, however, advances in science and laboratory techniques contributed to reduced acceptance of alcohol in medical treatments. In 1916, whiskey was removed from The Pharmacopeia of the United States of America.