On the Defence of Wine: Medical Discourse during the Global Temperance Movement 

Written by Kat Jivkova

The global temperance movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries have been widely understood through two historiographical narratives: (1) Ian Tyrell’s culture-clash narrative, which argues that temperance was mobilised by Western imperialists as a means of controlling their colonial subjects; and (2) Mark Schrad’s domination-resistance model, focused on the ways in which indigenous populations used temperance as a tool to resist Western hegemony. Both arguments have their strengths in explaining the cultural motivations behind temperance. However, they fail to highlight the prevalence of medical concern surrounding the “drink question”. Indeed, medical concerns were often tied to questions of race, class and gender, but they also shaped public perceptions of alcohol, and more specifically, wine. With good reason, wine has been treated as distinct from other liquors by historians of temperance. This can be attributed to its low potency in contrast to spirits, and its linkage to various forms of nationalism. In twentieth-century France, wine was considered so intrinsically linked to the French race that without it, they would “become a bland people without any personality”, according to Dr Edouard Bazerolle. Meanwhile, wine was used in Britain as a means of reconciling Scottish and English identity from the eighteenth century onwards. It is no surprise, therefore, that the drink was left almost unscathed in wine-producing countries. The medical discourse surrounding wine will be centred on Britain and France to reveal the ways in which the drink was defended and sustained against the risk of prohibition.  

In 1910, the British Journal of Inebriety published an article condemning the marketing of “sophisticated wines” as “therapeutic beverages”, arguing that they possessed no health benefits. On the other hand, medical professionals affiliated with The British Medical Journal and The Lancet stated that wines of good quality have therapeutic value. The former journal conducted investigations based on the chemical analyses of alcohol, sugar, tannin and aid to substantiate their claims: 

“In cases of anaemia, ordinary debility from overwork, feeble digestion etc., a sound red claret is almost as good a prescription as most of the tonic drugs in the [British] Pharmacopeia and is always an advantageous adjunct to this class of remedies”.  

Here, The Lancet suggests that red claret wine from the Bordeaux region could be used in place of a tonic due to the quality of its chemical composition. Wine companies, such as Wincarnis Tonic Wine, reaped the benefits of these health claims. However, the tonic wine boom brought with it concerns from temperance activists, who criticised the misleading advertisements which had spotlighted them. Questions on whether tonic wines were being endorsed by medical professionals, coupled with dubious medical evidence, threatened to discredit them. As part of the 1914 Commission on Patent Medicines, Dr Mary Sturge commented on the “misleading influence of the [tonic wine] advertisements”, which portrayed these wines as “natural nerve and brain food”. Given that there was no law that required manufacturers to disclose the ingredients in tonic wine, many members of the public were not even aware that it contained alcohol at all. Temperance groups shed light on this issue – a woman’s temperance group, The White Ribboners, admitted that many of their members had drunk tonic wines in the past, not knowing its alcohol content. Thus, medical discourse surrounding wines as a type of self-medication focused on whether the marketing of tonic wines corresponded to their actual medicinal value. Due to the “attractive and alluring” nature of advertising, even temperance groups failed to recognise tonic wine as alcoholic, and it continued to gain commercial success in the early twentieth century. In Britain’s wine-producing settler colonies, such as Australia and New Zealand, medical concerns were even more absent – temperance concerns in both countries only reached their zenith after they gained independence, in 1901 and 1907 respectively.  

The question of wine in France was even more prevalent than in Britain. An anti-alcohol crusade, backed by a number of doctors and temperance activists, emerged in the 1890s in response to the threat of alcoholism. Concerns about alcohol can be attributed to France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian war at the end of the nineteenth century, and the increases of alcohol consumption in the same period which seemed to suggest that the country was facing social dislocation and decadence. Alcoholism was seen as the root of national decline, and even more so in the aftermath of Italian medical findings which linked alcoholism to criminality. Almost immediately, doctors flocked to exempt wine from these accusations, arguing that not only did it not cause alcoholism, but it could treat it. Psychiatrist Emmanuel Regis, who was working for the Bordeaux medical faculty when these concerns were voiced, stated that he had “never seen an alcoholic who drank only wine”. Instead, wine, when drank in moderate amounts, could counteract alcoholism caused by hard liquor. In 1903, the French Chamber of Deputies supported this view, naming wine a “healthy beverage”. Even some temperance activists agreed that moderate wine drinking posed no threat to France’s social order.  

Similarly, in Britain, arguments about the health benefits of wine in France focused on its composition. Wine was seen as distinct from other forms of alcohol because it was fermented rather than industrially produced, and contained nutrients that could protect the body from contracting diseases. However, investigations into the health benefits of wine were not often as rigorous as those centred on hard liquor. Many studies argued that there were a higher proportion of seniors living in wine-producing parts of France than in the country, as a means of emphasising the significance of wine in guaranteeing longevity and healthy old age. However, these studies did not consider other regional differences, and assumed that the characteristics of the entire wine-producing region reflected what was true for individual members of that region – known as ecological fallacy. The very fact that investigations into wine were so lax reflected the consensus in the medical field that wine was much less harmful than spirits. It also showed the importance of wine as both a national resource and an intrinsic part of French national culture.  

Medical discourse surrounding the health benefits of wine still exist in the present, with some doctors arguing that even the occasional glass of wine could cause considerable harm to one’s health, and others suggesting that red wine in particular can reduce risks of heart attack. Neither of these claims has been substantiated with conclusive evidence. What is clear, however, is that these investigations are less likely to have been influenced by temperance movements, which have been on the decline since the second half of the twentieth century. In spite of this, even in the height of global temperance, wines were not attacked by activists with the same intensity as other liquors, based on it being a natural product made from fermented grapes. With this in mind, temperance literature should continue to deal with wine temperance on its own. 


Hands, Thora. Drinking in Victorian and Edwardian Britain: Beyond the Spectre of the Drunkard. Cham: Springer International Publishing, 2018. 

Griffith, Brian J. “Bacchus Among the Blackshirts: Wine Making, Consumerism and Identity in Fascist Italy, 1919–1937.” Contemporary European history 29, no. 4 (2020): 394–415. 

McIntyre, Julie, and John Germov. Hunter Wine: A History. Sydney: University of South Wales Press, 2018. 

Munholland, Kim. “Mon docteur le vin: Wine and Health in France, 1900-1950.” In Alcohol: A Social and Cultural History, edited by Mack. P. Holt, 77-90. Oxford: Berg, 2006. 

Schrad, Mark. Smashing the Liquor Machine: A Global History of Prohibition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2021. 

Tyrrell, Ian R. Reforming the World: The Creation of America’s Moral Empire. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010. 

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