Temperance march on the goldfields 1872. SOURCE: State Library NSW

A draft of whiskey, the last resort of the 19th century medical doctor

A draft of whiskey, the last resort of the 19th century medical doctor

When young Gilbert Pearce slipped off a log over a swollen Blackwood creek one Saturday in October 1882, he was lucky that Mr Gribble was just returning from work. After pulling the senseless boy out of the creek, the first thought of his rescuer was to apply a draft of brandy. As the Bacchus Marsh Express reported: “His injuries proved most trifling and a narrower escape has seldom been recorded.”

Faith in alcohol as medicine was still strong and alcohol consumption in Australia was nearing its peak. Alcohol was used both as a stimulant and to calm patients, for example during operations or in cases of emotional distress. Medical practitioners were, however, also acutely aware of the harm caused by alcohol and from the mid-1800s were influenced by the growing temperance movement.

Rooted in working class evangelical Christianity, the temperance movement sought to change attitudes towards drinking by pointing out the harmful effects on health and morals. In April 1871, the Star of Blackwood Rechabite tent held their first anniversary. Fifty children and 50 adult brethren marched through Barry’s Reef, Red Hill and Simmons Reef. They were joined by an additional 300 people for dinner at the Mechanics Hall. Nineteen more people signed the pledge to abstain from all intoxicating drinks. In 1893, the Band of Hope still held weekly meetings in the Mechanics Hall. With song and poetry readings, the young were induced to sign ‘the pledge.’ The popular repertoire included ‘Storm the Forts of Darkness’, written to the tune of ‘Here is to good old Whiskey’ and the poem ‘The lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine.’

Perversely, the temperance movement resulted in further medicinal use of alcohol. Liquor companies launched alcohol mixed with various substances as health-giving tonics to fight declining sales. Medical historian Roy Porter saw the role of “the vile race of quacks” as a manifestation of burgeoning medical entrepreneurship in the developing mass consumer market. In August 1861, Bridget Cruise, who built the Blackwood Hotel, lost her two year old son Joseph Peter and her four year old daughter Mary Ann to diphtheria. In August of the following year, she lost four year old daughter Catherine. Doctors could do little in these cases and parents turned to desperate cures.

The contagious nature of certain diseases had been known since antiquity, but from the mid-19th century scientists, such as Pasteur and Koch, began to discover that microscopic agents were responsible. This led to a greater focus on hygiene and the application of antiseptics to injury sites to prevent infection. The development of vaccines was also advanced as a consequence, but diphtheria vaccinations did not commence in Australia until the early 1930s. Country doctors battled away on their own as best they could in the face of ignorance, poverty and poor sanitation. Blackwood doctors came and went – one to the cemetery at his own hand, another addicted to morphine from his own dispensary. In September 1938, Gweneth Wisewould arrived in Trentham and would remain Blackwood GP for the next 33 years. In her autobiography she describes with palpable relief the amazing results with the newly developed antibiotics. The tables had been turned and life expectancy rose quickly.