Fun Fact: What Did Arctic Explorers Use to Treat Hypothermia in the 19th Century?

This medicinal beverage was believed to be an effective treatment for hypothermia, which earned it regular passage on many of the early expeditions to the Arctic.

Question: What did Arctic explorers use to treat hypothermia in the 19th century?

Answer: Brandy

Until the mid-twentieth century, brandy was used for centuries as a treatment for patients suffering from a fainting spell, hemorrhage, difficult pregnancy, or hypothermia, and was considered a general health tonic by the medical community.1

An article published in The Lancet in 1902 explained that brandy is “universally regarded as superior to all other spirits from a medicinal point of view” and that “some hold that the stimulating and restorative effect is referable chiefly to the alcohol, but there can be no doubt that these effects are enhanced or diminished to a greater or less proportion of other bodies chiefly of the ether type.”2

The alcohol was consumed so widely as a health tonic that when supply dwindled in England due to vines being infected by phylloxera in the late 19th century, counterfeit brandy was made and sold to take its place.1

Following the discovery of the imposter liquid, The Lancet set up a special commission to investigate the scandal, concluding that “some control over the sale of substitutes for brandy should be established.” Due to this conclusion, a pharmaceutical company took charge of overseeing the distilling and distribution of brandy, which was sold by pharmacies in ampoules for patients’ use.2

Brandy had been introduced to Europeans after the invasion of Spain by the Moors in the 8th century. Following Spain reclaiming the Iberian peninsula by the 13th century, brandy had already been established in the region as a drink of choice by its people, leading Spanish monasteries to keep up the brandy distillation practices left by the Moors.1

Due to its growing popularity, this Spanish brandy was shipped by monks for consumption across Europe, including to the Vatican, where the papal physician prescribed it often to the papacy as a health tonic.1

During this period, brandy was thought to be beneficial for patients suffering from hemorrhaging, as it was believed to inhibit clotting. It was also given frequently to women suffering from a difficult pregnancy, with the preferred delivery method being injection. While trying to give birth, these soon-to-be mothers would get an injection of brandy directly into their arm or buttocks to ease the birthing process.1

Brandy was also believed to be an effective treatment for hypothermia, which earned it regular passage on many of the early expeditions to the Arctic, specifically during what is referred to as the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration between the years of 1897 and 1922.1,2

During these long journeys, supply of brandy would gradually dwindle. On one such expedition, Ekelöf, a doctor to the Swedish Antarctic Expedition of 1901 to 1904, wrote that by “the second year there were only very few bottles left, which were reserved for festive occasions or for medical use.” This may have been unfortunate news for the weary travelers, as the expedition would be 4 years long.2

During a Belgian expedition between 1898 and 1900, one traveler complained that the expedition leader had monopolized all the brandy for himself, finishing their supply without sharing it with his team. The traveler Bernacchi writes, “Unless the doctor has a bottle or so, we have not a drop of brandy at Cape Adair for medicinal purposes. On this occasion we were obliged to use whiskey. It is really scandalous.”2

Although these travelers’ logic was sound in regard to brandy providing its consumer with a feeling of warmth, modern medicine has shown that the alcohol does not, in fact, help people recover from hypothermia. In fact, brandy contributes to heat loss by widening the consumer’s blood vessels and decreasing their blood pressure.1

However, brandy was used for its believed health benefits by medical professionals up until about 1963. In the British Medical Journal that year, a physician at St. Bartholomew's Hospital in London wrote that they treat their patients with brandy through feeding cups, which were kept on the anesthetic trolleys for cases of anesthetic emergency.2 After its use during this time, brandy lost its place of honor as a medicinal drink of choice and it has not been noted in medical journals since.1,2

REFERENCES

  • Kang L, Pedersen N. Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything. New York, NY: Workman Publishing; 2017.
  • Guly H. Medicinal brandy. Resuscitation. 2011;82(7):951—954. doi: 10.1016/j.resuscitation.2011.03.005.