From medicine to mania.In the 18th century gin mania in England reached epidemic proportions. Between 1715 and 1750 there were more deaths than births in London, with the greatest mortality among children. Many of these deaths were due to fetal alcohol syndrome fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS), pattern of physical, developmental, and psychological abnormalities seen in babies born to mothers who consumed alcohol during pregnancy. as unhappy mothers-to-be sought solace in gin. And unhappiness was the rule, not the exception, and it wasn't limited to pregnant women. The mid-eighteenth century was a brutal era, rife with robbery, murder and venereal disease venereal disease (vənēr`ēəl): see sexually transmitted disease. . Illness due to a lack of clean water and food was rampant; smoke spewing from the quickly multiplying factories that ushered in the Industrial Revolution polluted the air.
But gin was cheap and provided at least temporary escape from the abject poverty, the filth and hopelessness of the environment. It was the ascension of the Dutchman, William of Orange William of Orange: see William the Silent; William II, prince of Orange; William III, king of England. , to the British throne in 1688 that marked the beginning of the gin craze. William banned the importing of French wines and spirits and encouraged the distillation of spirits from home-grown grain. Consumption of gin skyrocketed. So did drunkenness and social disorder.
The Gin Act of 1736 attempted to muzzle the run-away gin production by raising taxes on distilled spirits and making the sale of gin in quantities under two gallons illegal. Distillers also had to take out a fifty pound license. All this did was cause riots in the streets, lead to prison populations bursting with offenders to the Act and stimulate a black market in gin.
As cheap gin flowed unabated, crime increased, men were rendered impotent, women ceased to care for their children, suicide rates jumped, people sold their possessions to satisfy their thirst for perpetual drunkenness. All of this is depicted in William Hogarth's famous 1751 satirical engraving Gin Lane. There is the carpenter pawning the tools of his trade for gin, the emaciated dying man still clutching his glass of gin, the neglected infant whose mother is being placed in a coffin, the woman forcing gin into the mouth of an infant to keep it quiet, the schoolgirls drinking gin, a barber who has just hanged himself, and the dominant figure of a woman in a drunken stupor stupor /stu·por/ (stoo´per) [L.]
1. a lowered level of consciousness.
2. in psychiatry, a disorder marked by reduced responsiveness.stu´porous
n. whose child, disfigured by fetal alcohol syndrome, is falling to his death.
Authorities passed the second Gin Act in 1751 forcing distillers to sell only to licensed retailers. No longer could gin be purchased from every corner grocer, tobacconist, apothecary apothecary /apoth·e·cary/ (ah-poth´e-kar?e) pharmacist.
n. pl. a·poth·e·car·ies Abbr. ap.
1. , barber or jail keeper. Finally the gin mania began to fade.
While gin ruined many lives in the eighteenth century, its original purpose was to save lives. It was developed in 1650 by Franciscus Sylvius, a professor of medicine at the State University of Leyden in Holland. Juniper berries already had a folkloric history as a remedy for gout gout, condition that manifests itself as recurrent attacks of acute arthritis, which may become chronic and deforming. It results from deposits of uric acid crystals in connective tissue or joints. and urinary tract problems such as urine retention. Sylvius' idea was to produce a diuretic diuretic (dī'yərĕt`ĭk), drug used to increase urine formation and output. Diuretics are prescribed for the treatment of edema (the accumulation of excess fluids in the tissues of the body), which is often the result of underlying by distilling juniper berries with spirits derived from fermented barley.
Gin is incredibly complex chemically, containing hundreds of compounds in very small doses. Some of these, terpinen-4-ol, for example, have potential biological effects, such as reducing inflammation or stimulating the kidney's rate of filtration. But there is too little present in gin to have any such effect.
While there is no scientific evidence that gin has any medicinal benefit, one piece of folklore has persisted. That's the use of gin-soaked raisins to treat arthritis. The common recipe is to take a box of golden raisins, soak them in a few pints of gin for a few weeks until it evaporates and then eat nine a day. Various explanations have been forwarded as to why this works, usually speculating about anti-inflammatory compounds in juniper berries or in the raisins. Pretty far-fetched speculation given the tiny amounts of these compounds present.
My bet is that it's the pints of gin that does it. And they do it by the same mechanism with which they can treat a cold. Here it is: When you have a cold, place a hat on the bedpost and start drinking gin. When you see two hats, the cold will be gone. Or at least you'll forget about it.
Joe Schwarcz is the director of McGill University's Office for Science and Society. Read his blog at chemicallyspeaking.com.