A Historian’s Guide to Summer-The Beer Edition
Now that I am back in my home state of Texas after being gone for several years, I wanted to write about a topic that might touch upon summertime, gender, and the history of medicine . . . so obviously, I decided to write about beer! Beer and barbeque in the Texan summer are about as ubiquitous as heat and humidity. While I’m not really going to focus on the summer specifically, I primarily wanted to use it as a springboard of sorts to begin this post on the history of medicinal beer.
Beer has been brewed in some form or another for thousands of years, beginning with the ancient civilizations of Mesopotamia around 6,000 BCE. In fact, according to Ian Hornsey’s mammoth tome, A History of Beer and Brewing, beer was king in Egypt! Early brewers used a variety of ingredients to flavor the beverage, including herbals like balsam, hay, dandelion, mint, wormwood seeds, horehound juice, crab claws, and even oyster shells. Ancient Egyptians drank beer daily, not only because of its refreshing quality but as a substitute for water, which was presumably horribly unhygienic in those days. Beer held more than a practical value. If an Egyptian gentleman offered a lady a sip of his beer, they were betrothed, and early Egyptian texts (around 1600 BCE) contain medical prescriptions calling for beer.
Strong physical evidence suggests that beer was used for medicinal purposes as long ago as 250 CE. Scientists believe that people in ancient Nubia were using beer as an antibiotic to treat a variety of ailments from infected wounds to gum disease. A 1980 archaeological expedition led by Emory University anthropology professor George Armelagos uncovered bones from the ancient kingdom of Nubia that contained consistently high concentrations of the antibiotic tetracycline. Tetracycline is naturally produced by soil bacteria called streptomyces, and scientists theorized that the grain used to make the Nubian beer contained these streptomyces. Armelagos and medicinal chemist Mark Nelson believe that it wasn’t just a fluke—ancient Nubians had fermentation under control and were intentionally producing the antibiotic in their beer for its medicinal value. In an interview for Emory University, Nelson stated that the “bones of these ancient people were saturated with tetracycline, showing that they had been taking it for a long time,” proving that the ancient Nubians were partiers with a purpose.
I’m wondering if it was the medicinal benefits that kept Nubians drinking this beer because, from the description, this wasn’t the delightful, refreshing beverage from today’s microbrewery. It was more akin to a thick cereal. According to Armelagos, who had his graduate students recreate the beer, it was “like a sour porridge substance. The ancient people would have drained the liquid off and also eaten the gruel.” I feel like the marketing campaign for this would go something like: Nubian Beer, the Breakfast of Champions……This beer tastes bad and it’s more filling……. But it really keeps your teeth from falling out of your head! At some point, the antibiotic beer secret was lost. When and why remains a mystery, but it is not the first technology to vanish with the disappearance of cultures.
During the Middle Ages, beer was used as a stimulant to improve moods. Appetite generating and calming properties were attributed to the hops that were being added for flavoring, such as the bark of fir trees, thyme, and fresh eggs. It was consumed by men, women, and children alike. During the Middle Ages, beer was not only used for its medicinal value but also as currency. Beer and ale were among the products that topped the lists of items to be given to lords for rent. Not surprisingly, as Gregory Austin has noted in his book Alcohol in Western Society from Antiquity to 1800, the consumption of beer (and all alcohol) increased dramatically during the Black Death and subsequent plagues. In Bavaria, for instance, beer consumption was most likely around 300 liters per capita a year–compared to 150 today. Understandably, the consumption of distilled spirits, which was exclusively for medicinal purposes, increased in popularity as well.
Flash forward to Prohibition-era America, after the Eighteenth Amendment banned the manufacture, sale, and consumption of “intoxicating liquors” for “beverage purposes” in 1919. The movement for the prohibition of alcohol dated back to the temperance crusade, which actively engaged thousands of women in the nineteenth century. The temperance crusade and its major organization founded in 1874, the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union, empowered women to participate in political activism outside the “domestic sphere” while simultaneously utilizing the language of “home protection.” Drinking alcohol had long been viewed as a male prerogative, one that could lead to the squandering of the family income and even more detrimental, domestic abuse. While women temperance crusaders fought to protect their home and families from the ill effects of drunkenness, they were doing so within a social framework where they lacked many basic rights including the right to vote, to own property, and to have custody of their children in the event of a divorce.
The movement gained momentum after 1900 as a progressive reform. However, it was during Prohibition that more women began to frequent saloons, or speakeasies, and were actually out drinking (instead of in the privacy of the home). At any rate, the issue of Prohibition became a highly controversial one among medical professionals, because alcohol was widely prescribed by physicians during this era for therapeutic purposes. In 1921, a group of physicians, pharmacists, brewers, and imbibers of beer attempted to convince the U.S. Congress that beer was nothing less than vital medicine. This is not unlike the argument made in the twentieth century for medicinal marijuana. It should be noted, however, that physicians were not only protesting that beer had medicinal value; they also objected to the encroachment of Congress into their professional arena. Physicians used beer and other alcohol for a variety of ailments including anemia, high blood pressure, heart disease, typhoid, and tuberculosis. It was used as a tonic, stimulant, preventive measure, and even as a cure for acute illnesses.
Beer advocates wanted to create a disconnect in the phrase, “intoxicating liquors … for beverage purposes…” in the Eighteenth Amendment. This would allow maneuvering room for physicians to prescribe beer for medicinal purposes. The Volstead Act (1919) had made clear that intoxicating liquors included “beer, wine, or other intoxicating malts or vinous liquors” that contained “one-half per centum or more of alcohol by volume.” This permitted the continued manufacture of “near beer,” which was diluted down to about .5 percent. According to a New York Times article, many beer drinkers at the time weren’t satisfied with this compromise and proclaimed, “Near Beer Doesn’t Cheer.” On March 3, 1921, United States Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer declared that the “beverage” clause of the Eighteenth Amendment allowed doctors to prescribe beer at any time, under any circumstances, and in any amount they saw fit. Immediately the Internal Revenue Bureau began imposing regulations to impede physicians in their dispensing of this therapeutic elixir, including limiting the amounts and time frames of prescriptions. In the end, Congress reacted to fill in this crack in the language of the Amendment and took up the so-called “Beer Emergency Bill” or the Willis-Campbell Bill. This act supplemented the Volstead Act and effectively rendered medicinal beer illegal. President Harding signed it into law on November 23, 1921, thus ending America’s brief experiment with “Medicinal Beer.”
With the proliferation of microbreweries and gourmet beers, the beer industry has really taken off in the past several years. But as you can see, beer has been around for thousands of years and has been used for a variety of reasons including: a delivery vehicle for antibiotics; as a method of payment for land and food; to stave off anxiety about the plague (and come on, who didn’t need that); and as part of the women’s crusade for more political empowerment. Moreover, “medicinal beer” may be a thing of the past, but it seems as if many people still look to it as a therapeutic agent after a hard day’s work. So, the next time you’re having a cold one at a summer barbeque or at your local brewhouse, tip your hat to a beverage that has really made its mark on history!
 Ian S. Hornsey, A History of Beer and Brewing (Cambridge: The Royal Society of Chemistry, 2003).
 Mark L. Nelson, Andrew Dinardo, Jeffery Hochberg, and George J. Armelagos, “Brief Communication: Mass spectroscopic characterization of tetracycline in the skeletal remains of an ancient population from Sudanese Nubia 350-550 CE,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 143 (September, 2010): 151-154; “Ancient Brew Masters Tapped Antibiotic Secrets” Science Daily. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/09/100902094246.htm
 Carol Clark, “Ancient Brewers Tapped Antibiotic Secrets,” EScienceCommons: Where Science Meets Society. http://esciencecommons.blogspot.com/2010/08/ancient-brew-masters-tapped-drug.html
 Jess McNally, “Ancient Nubians Made Antibiotic Beer,” Wired. http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2010/09/antibiotic-beer/
 Jacob M. Appel, “Physicians Are Not ‘Bootleggers’: The Short, Peculiar Life of the Medicinal Alcohol Movement,” Bulletin of the History of Medicine (Summer 2008): 355-386.
 “Asks Ruling on Doctor’s Right to Prescribe Beer as Medicine,” New York Times, February 13, 1921.
 “No Legal Limit on Beer and Wine Doctor Can Order,” New York Times, May 10, 1921.
 “Beer as Medicine, 2.5 Gallons At A Time,” New York Times, October 25, 1921.