Teetotal address of Mr John Snow (afterwards MD) at Pateley Bridge (center right), in the spring of 1836 (age 23), towards the end of his third medical apprenticeship.
I feel it my duty to endeavour to convince you of the physical evils sustained to your health by using intoxicating liquors even in the greatest moderation; and I leave to my colleagues the task of painting drunkenness in all its hideousness, of describing the manifold miseries and crimes it produces, and of proving to you that total abstinence is the only remedy for those evils. If I could bring you, my friends, to see these liquors in the same light as I do, you would then abstain from them without considering it an act of self-denial, or a sacrifice you were making for the benefit of society, but an act of justice to yourselves, the neglect of which would be irrational.
I shall, then, detain you a little in trying to investigate the causes that have rendered the use of these liquors so universal, so fashionable, nay, even so credible. One great cause, I believe, is an unhappy action of that noble principle in man which makes him strive to imitate whatever is above him; that thirst of progressive improvement, unpossessed of which we should remain as stationary as brutes; and which, if allowed to lie dormant, would cause us to remain for generations with as little improvement as the Chinese. When these liquors are first introduced amongst a people, they are something new, rare, and expensive; the impression therefore is, that they must be good; and before the novelty has worn off, the people have got endeared to them by all the ties of acquaintanceship. The poor man, or the man in middling circumstances, must imitate those above him as well as he can, without considering whether his acts are wise or not. The lad wants to be a man, and the child a lad; and if wine tastes sour, or ale bitter, or they make his head ache, it must be, he thinks, because he is a greenhorn. He must get more used to them, and then he will enjoy them as others do.
The great and palpable evils, too, occasioned by drinking these fluids in excess, divert our attention from the mischief done by taking them in what is called moderation. A moderate use of them does not produce all these evils; therefore moderation must be a good thing! Might we not as well say that because gambling a little with small sums does not put a man and his family to the risk of starvation, and produce all the distress and crime that gambling to excess does; therefore gambling in moderation must be a good thing! I would have you pause and consider whether there is any wholesome article of diet, which, if taken in the greatest excess, will cause such serious derangement in the economy, as fermented liquors do. I think there is none, and I would have you view with especial suspicion, a food that will make you want the more of it the more you get.
A great deal has been said, and justly too, about the destructive properties of ardent spirit, and it may all be applied with equal propriety to ale and wine. The question seems to reduce itself to this. Either wine and ale are pernicious, or ardent spirits are wholesome when mixed with water. Port, and some of the stronger kinds of wine, contain about half as much alcohol as rum and brandy: the weaker kinds not so much, and made wine, even when you tell us it has no spirit in it, contains one-fourth or one-fifth part as much. Porter contains about an eighth part, and ale about a tenth part, in addition to some hop, which is a bitter sleep-inducing plant. And this is your healthful home-brewed, which contains no drugs!
Another great cause of the credit these liquids have got is the instruction of medical men. Some medical men are so far in the wrong as to think that these drinks may safely be used in moderation. When they commence their studies they learn the names and properties of medicines, and the nature of diseases and their remedies; and generally speaking, they pay little attention to the properties of food, and other things which act on the body in its healthy state; or if they do pay attention to these things, perhaps they have already got a taste for what are called the good things of this world, and they easily chime in with opinions of many who have gone before them. The passions and appetites, my friends, have a very great share in forming one's opinions, even when one wishes to be most impartial.
And when medical men are sincerely of opinion that total abstinence from all that contains alcohol is the only plan congenial to health, they often get misunderstood. A patient asks his attendant if he may have some wine. Now if he should tell him that wine is pernicious and he never ought to drink any, he will think it ridiculous and will continue taking it. So he tells him `not yet'. And if he can keep his patient from it there is not much danger of its aggravating his complaint, he thinks he has done well; and then allows him to take a little once or twice a day in moderation; and the patient says the doctor has ordered it, and thinks it must be an excellent thing. But the occasions when wine or ale is required as a medicine are very few. When the strength is reduced to a very low ebb through disease, loss of blood, exposure to cold, or any other cause, it is universally allowed that to administer these stimulants is the very worst practice. It is like blowing strongly upon the very last spark of an expiring flame; there is the greatest risk that it will extinguish the little life that is left. Then since the unassisted powers of nature inherent in the body can raise it from such a degree of exhaustion as not to be able to bear stimulants stronger then cold water, do you not think that these powers, without the assistance of simple nourishment, can raise it from all lesser degrees of exhaustion? The brandy treatment has been extensively tried in cholera, but it is now abandoned in all parts of the world. If the debility is not so great that life is not destroyed by it (brandy), still it hurries on and makes more violent that reaction, that secondary fever which is most to be dreaded, and increases the tendency which there is to inflammation in the head and elsewhere. The common practice of applying to these drinks when chilled with cold, is equally injurious. It generally makes worse if it does not altogether bring on all the ill effects usually attributed to the cold.
In some case of spasmodic pain - of colic for instance - these liquors do give relief; but medical men produce the same relief by other medicines that are preferable. And in the hands of the multitude these fluids are highly dangerous; for if given when there is inflammation they increase it. It is therefore better in such cases to seek relief by ginger, pepper, or other aromatics which are equally efficacious.
So we find that the cases in which intoxicating drinks are required as medicines are very rare indeed, if any. And if they were useful as medicines, would that be a reason why they might be taken with impunity on every occasion? Would it not rather be a proof that they were injurious? When you hear of a person who is constantly taking medicine, whether it be from necessity or choice, you never expect him to be a long liver. Medicines are indeed a great blessing, but at the same time, their use is generally the substitution of a lesser evil for a greater.
Another great cause of the consumption of fermented liquors is a notion that a person requires them when he works hard. We hear them tell us 'Such as you that lead an easy life may do without, but a man that has to work as I have, wants a gill of ale now and then to help him get through it'. Now the proof that it contains little or no nutrition, ought to be sufficient to upset that fallacy; and there are plenty of well attested cases of men who, without one drop of these liquors, were as strong or stronger, and more able to endure fatigue than those who took them. And now that attention is called to the subject, these proofs are becoming daily more numerous. If as much industrious research had been employed about these matters, as in making discoveries about the moon and planets, and amongst the minute wonders of the insect kingdom, they would not now be subjects of dispute. With all our progress in natural history and the physical sciences, we are far behind some of the civilized nations of antiquity in knowledge of the things most nearly connected with our health and well-being. And while a British labourer has more comforts and luxuries within his reach than the Roman Emperors could boast, while he has ships on every sea conveying clothing and food and intelligence for him from every clime, and machinery performing for him the most delicate workmanship, he is ignorant of the means of applying these things to his advantage, and they often become his greatest curses.
The sole thing which makes these people strong (in addition to food) is exercise - exercise taken in a good state of health. And that diet is most conducive to strength which keeps the body in the most healthy and natural state, that food and drink which affords the necessary quantity of nutrition, and is at the same time least heating and stimulating. The circulation does require to be accelerated and the blood warmed sometimes, but it ought to be with bodily exercise, which adds fresh substance to the muscles, and increases the stock of vital energy, whilst all other stimulants diminish it.
A working man may drink a little ale, especially if it be along with his food, with more impunity than one who does not work, but still it does injury. Perhaps he does not see the difference between those who take it and those who do not, but until very lately there have been scarcely any who did not take it, except those who could not obtain it; and these are generally persons who are debarred from, or insufficiently supplied with, some things that are really necessary to health.
But they tell me, too, that they feel a direct advantage from a little ale. They say they can work better after it. They are inclined to believe their own feelings, but their feelings are fallacious. There is and must be a subsequent depression. If it was the effect of real nutrition, how could it be felt immediately? Before the advantage of nutrition can be realised, it must go through many processes, and even get into the blood, which could scarcely be on the same day.
Nurses, and people who go about the sick, make it an excuse for taking these liquors that they keep away infection; but that is so far from being the case, that the use of them not only makes people more liable to fevers, and, indeed, most complaints, but leaves them much less chance of recovery. It is also said that ale is necessary for mothers while giving suck, but that is a disastrous error; and I would wish to speak emphatically to mothers when I say, as you love your infants, as you value their ease, their health, and their future welfare, let not that stream which is their first nourishment, be polluted by flowers of the soporific hop-plant, and the irritating and inflaming alcohol contained in beer; but let it be pure and healthful, formed of simple food, whilst living according to the dictates of nature.
Another cause of entertaining these evil spirits and the drinks which contain them, is the prejudice which there is against cold water. Folks must have something else. I can drink it in moderation when I am thirsty, and I never tire of it. You have all heard of the dreadful disease produced by the bite of a mad dog. It is called hydrophobia, from two Greek words signifying a dread of water, which is one of the symptoms of the disorder. But awful as this disease is, there is another hydrophobia, which is ten thousand times more fatal. The first hydrophobia happily occurs but at long intervals, and at place distant from each other. Many medical men have an extensive practice, and die without seeing it. But the dread of water which makes people seek to quench their thirst with anything rather than the limpid element, is the cause of daily and innumerable deaths, and of the greater part of the misery, poverty, and strife, that we see around us. One cause of this antipathy to water is the severe disorders, and sometimes even sudden deaths that are now and then occasioned by a quantity of very cold water, when heated by exercise; but these mischiefs are produced simply by the coldness of it. As much cold ale would do as much harm.
Another cause of this antipathy is the fact that some tedious and even dangerous complaints are occasioned by the water that people habitually use. But it is the impurities which it contains that are to blame; and you do not escape from the danger by flying to fermented liquors, for you still get water and more of it, too. The way to get water pure is to distil it. Those huge stills in different parts of the country that pour forth evils amongst mankind in greater proportion than the fabled Pandora's box, may, by distilling water instead of spirit, be made to be the fountains of health; and wherever there is a steam engine, a very trifling expense in a few additional pipes would condense the steam that now flies away into the air, or is otherwise wasted, and supply plenty of the purest water to the whole neighbourhood. But you in Netherdale, have no occasion to be afraid of the water which comes gurgling from the hills in unrivalled softness and purity. I believe that the noted healthfulness of this district, in spite of the lead mines and mills, and the good stature and fresh looks of the inhabitants, is as much to be attributed to the purity of the water they drink as to the air they breathe.
We have thus enumerated some of the causes of what is called the temperate use of these pernicious things, that the temperate use of them which is the chief cause of intemperance. Yes, almost the sole cause. For nobody becomes a drunkard all at once; that is contrary to the nature of things. A taste for the drink is first acquired in the school of moderation. The society of drunkards is not alluring. No young man would go amongst them to begin with. And no one would fly to drink as a refuge from grief or disappointed ambition who was not previously well acquainted with its effects. And, moreover, it is the moderate use of them by respectable people that gives these liquors all their plausibility. When they are used by sober tradespeople in transacting business, it would seem that there is something creditable in them. When they are given to visitors, do they not look like the very type of hospitality? And when ladies drink wine to each other at a ball, must it not be the very essence of politeness and refinement? When used at a wedding, is it not the promoter of harmless mirth? And at a funeral it is associated with our most grave and solemn contemplations. On the other hand, if none but drunkards used these fluids, the very business of a brewer or distiller or vendor of them would be infamous. Let me beg you to pause before you determine whether your conduct and influence shall assist in upholding all the legion of woes, ignorance, and depravity, which keep the world enthralled; or, whether you will assist in the great moral reformation which is already taking place, and towards which every individual has it in his power to contribute his share.
My friends, this is a subject which will bear viewing in an endless variety of directions. One might deliver a thousand lectures on it without any repetitions. Temperance societies afford an excellent opportunity for medical men to enlighten the public on very many points connected with their health, a great deal of useful information might be given on many subjects connected with our profession, without touching on anything above the meanest capacity; and it would cause medical men to get on much more smoothly, and enable them to do a great deal more good.
In concluding, let me beg of you to examine this subject attentively and on all sides, and to keep your eyes open to the effects that will be produced amongst members of our society. If fairy tales were sometimes true, and if some kind guardian sylph were to tell me to wish a good wish to the folks of Netherdale before I left them, and if it should be fulfilled, I would wish, as one of the greatest blessings that could be conferred upon them, that they might be enabled to see intoxicating liquors and the effects of them in their true light. But give the subject your serious consideration, and I have too good an opinion of the cause and of your judgement to fear the result.
Source: Snow, T. Doctor's teetotal address delivered in 1836. The British Temperance Advocate, 1888 in Galbraith, S. Dr. John Snow (1813-1858) -- His Early Years, 2002.