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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 36

Original Researches on the Action of Alcohol

Original Researches on the Action of Alcohol.

In so speaking, I cannot, I think, do better or simpler than narrate the individual method of inquiry by which, in an independent way, I was brought, without being able to avoid the result, to the conclusion I submit to you, viz., that the popular prevailing idea that alcohol, as a food, is a necessity for man has no basis whatever from a scientific point of view.

Let me say, that at the commencement of the labours which brought me to the conclusion above stated, I had no bias in favour of or preconceived opinion respecting alcohol.

Like many other men of science, I had been too careless or too oblivious of those magnificent labours which the advocates of temperance for its own sake had, for many previous years, through good report and evil report, so nobly and truthfully carried out. But for what may be called one of the accidents of a scientific career, I might indeed, to the end of my days, have continued negative on this question.

The circumstance that led me to the special study of alcohol is simply told. In the year 1863 I directed the attention of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, during its meeting at Newcastle, to the action of a chemical substance called nitrite of amyl, the physiological properties of which I had for some months previously been subjecting to investigation. My researches attracted so much attention, that I was desired by the physiological section of the Association, over which Professor Rolleston most ably presided, to continue them, and, in the end, I was enabled to place in the hands of the physician one of the most useful and remarkable medicinal agents that has ever been supplied by the chemist for the relief of human suffering. The success of this research led the Association to entrust me with further labours, and in the course of pursuing them, other chemical substances, nearly allied to that from which I started, came under observation. Amongst these was the well-known chemical product which the Arabian chemist, Albucasis, is said first to have distilled from wine, which on account of its subtlety was called alcohol, which is now called ethylic alcohol, and which forms the stimulating part of all wines, spirits, beers, and other ordinary intoxicating drinks.

In my hands this common alcohol, and other bodies of the same group, viz.: methylic, propylic, butylic, and amylic alcohols, were tested purely from the physiological point of view. They were tested exclusively as chemical substances apart from any question as to their general use and employment, and free from all bias, for or against their influence on mankind for good or for evil.

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The method of research that was pursued was the same that had been followed in respect to nitrite of amyl, chloroform, ether, amylene and other chemical bodies, and it was in the following order. First, the mode in which living bodies would take up or absorb the substance was considered. This settled, the quantity necessary to produce a decided physiological change was ascertained, and was estimated in relation to the weight of the living body on which the observation was made. After these facts were ascertained the special action of the agent was investigated on the blood, on the motion of the heart, on the respiration, on the minute circulation of the blood, on the digestive organs, on the secreting and excreting organs, on the nervous system and brain, on the animal temperature, and on the muscular activity. By these processes of inquiry, each specially carried out, I was enabled to test fairly the action of the different chemical agents that came before me.

In the case of alcohol, tried by these tests, I found then a definite order of facts, the principal of which I may narrate. It was discovered that alcohol, being a substance very soluble in water, would enter the body by every absorbing surface: by the skin, by the stomach, by the blood, and by the inhalation of its vapour in the lungs. But so greedy is it for water that it must first be diluted before it can be freely absorbed. If it be not so diluted it will seize the water from the tissues to which it is applied, and will harden and coagulate them. In this way it may even be made to coagulate the blood itself, and in some instances of rapid poisoning by it, the death has occurred from the coagulation of blood within the vessels, or in the heart.

The quantity required for absorption in order to produce distinct effects is from twenty to thirty grains of the fluid to the pound weight of the animal body, in those who have not become habituated to the influence of it. In quantities that can be tolerated it affects the blood, making that fluid unduly thin or coagulating it, according to the amount of it that is earned into the circulating system. It acts on the blood-corpuscles, causing them to undergo modifications of shape and size, and reducing their power of absorbing oxygen from the air. It changes the natural action of the heart, causing the heart to beat with undue rapidity and increasing the action, in extreme instances, to such a degree that the organ in an adult man is driven to the performance of an excess of work equal to the labour of lifting over twenty-four tons weight one foot in twenty-four hours. In some instances the number of extra strokes of the heart produced by alcohol has reached 25,000 in the twenty-four hours. Th effect on the respiration follows that on the heart, and is correspondingly deranged.

On the minute blood vessels, those vessels which form the terminals of the arteries and in which the vital acts of nutrition and production of animal heat and force are carried on, alcohol produces a paralysing effect in the same manner as does the nitrite of amyl. Hence the flush of the face and hands which we observe in those who have partaken freely of wine. This flush extends to all parts, to the brain, to the lungs, to the digestive organs. Carried to its full extent it becomes a congestion, and in those who are long habituated to excess of alcohol the permanency of the congestion is seen in the discoloured blotched skin, and, too often, in the disorganisation which is planted in the vital organs, the lungs, the liver, the kidney, the brain.

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On the digestive system alcohol acts differently according to the degree in which it is used. In small quantities it excites the mucous membrane of the stomach so as to increase the secretion of gastric juice, and from that circumstance some think it assists digestion. In larger quantities it impairs the secretion and weakens digestion, producing flatulency and distension of the stomach. On the liver, if the action of the spirit be at all excessive, the influence is bad. Organic change of the structure of the liver is very easily induced. The same is true in respect to the action of the agent on the kidney.

On the nervous system alcohol exerts a double action. There are two nervous systems in man and in the higher animals, viz.: the vegetative or mere animal nervous system, and the cerebral and spinal nervous system which receives the pictures of the external universe, and is the seat of the functions of reason and of the supremer mental faculties. On both these systems, vegetative and reasoning, alcohol produces diverse actions, all of which are perverse to the natural. At first it paralyses those nervous fibres of the organic or vegetative system which control the minute vessels of the circulation. By this means a larger supply of blood is driven by the heart into the nervous centres, and nervous action from them is first excited, afterwards blunted; the brain is in a glow, and that stage of mental exhilaration which is considered the cheering and exciting stage of wine-drinking is experienced. After a time, if the action progresses, the opposite condition obtains; the function of the higher mental centres is depressed, the mere animal centres remain uncontrolled masters of the intellectual man, and the man sinks into the lower animal in everything but shape of material body. In the lower animals a state of actual madness accompanies this stage, and in man, sometimes, the same terrible condition is also witnessed.

Not only are the brain and nervous centres thus paralysed, the other vital organs of the body which have their fine minute vascular structures governed by the nervous current, the lungs, the brain, the liver, the kidney, the lining or mucous surface of the digestive system, the various serous surfaces of the body, are also through their weakened vessels surcharged with blood. They are congested as the skin is when the body of the drinker is flushed with wine; or, to use another simile, as the surface of the body is after the vessels, long stricken by cold, are relaxing and glowing red under the application of heat.

In this manner, by the course of experiment, I learned, step by step, that the true action of alcohol, in a physiological point of view, is to create paralysis of nervous power. It acts precisely as I had seen nitrite of amyl and come other chemical bodies act.

Previously to the performance of these researches, some distinguished physiologists had shown that mechanical division of the nervous cords which govern the vascular supply of special parts of the body leads to flushing those parts with blood. I traced, a little later, that the local paralysing action of extreme cold was practically the same process, and was therefore followed by the same effects. And now in these inquiries into the influence of chemical agents, I discovered an exact analogy, nay, I may say, in all but the method, an identity of principle. If we could temporarily divide with the knife all the nervous supplies of the vascular structures of the body, we should temporarily produce the page 11 same conditions as are produced by such diffusive escaping agencies as nitrite of amyl or alcohol. We should set the heart at liberty to work against reduced resistance: we should see the vessels of the skin and other parts intensely injected with blood: and, if we repeated the process many times, we should witness structural changes of parts, organic disease, structural diseases; such changes as are produced in those who suffer from excess of alcohol during long periods of time.

In brief, my experimental inquiries led me to discern, without original intention of such discernment, that the power for which alcohol is esteemed, its power as an agent to liberate the heart, to excite the nervous centres and influence the passions, to afterwards congest the centres and dull the passions, to make men violent and mad, then imbecile and palsied, is, all through, one power in various stages of development and degree: a power not exercised for the elevation but for the reduction of all the functions of life.

Pursuing still the plan I had set forth for the general method of investigating the action of chemical substances on animal bodies, I was led to study the influence of alcohol on the animal temperature. The prevailing view on this subject had been that alcohol increases and maintains the animal temperature. This view, it is true, had been challenged. Dr. Aitken had challenged it many years ago in the first volume of the Literary and Philosophical Society of Manchester. The illustrious Beddoes had challenged it. The late Dr. Cheyne, of Dublin, had challenged it. Dr. Carpenter, Dr. Lees, and some others whose prescience had been far more acute than mine, had challenged it. In perfect candour, the inference had been drawn by many observers that alcohol reduces the animal temperature; that those who are exposed to extremes of cold are best fortified against cold when they abstain from alcohol and depend on warm unintoxicating drinks; and that the popular idea on the subject was wrong. At the same time, it is certain that the impressions of these eminent scientists were not so confirmed by direct and absolute experimental research as to satisfy the world in general of their correctness. For my own part, I was ignorant, and that is why I sought for certain knowledge. To the research I devoted three years, from 1863 to 1866, modifying experiments in every conceivable way, taking advantage of seasons and varying temperatures of season, extending observation from one class of animal to another, and making comparative researches with other bodies of the alcohol series than the ethylic or common alcohol.

The results, I confess, were as surprising to me as to any one else. They were surprising from their definitiveness and their uniformity. They were most surprising from the complete contradiction they gave to the popular idea that alcohol is a supporter and sustainer of the animal temperature.

It will be borne in mind that I have described a flush from alcohol as the first effect of it in its first stage, when into the paralysed vessels the larger volume of blood is poured. In that stage, that is to say in the earlier part of it, I found an increase of temperature. This increase, however, was soon discovered to be nothing more than radiation from an enlarged surface of blood; a process, in fact, of rapid cooling, followed quickly by direct evidence of cooling. After this I found that through every subsequent stage of the alcoholic process, the stage of page 12 excitement, of temporary partial paralysis of muscle, of narcotism and deep intoxication, the temperature was reduced in the most marked degree. I placed alcohol and cold side by side in experiment, and found that they ran together equally in fatal effect, and I determined that in death from alcohol the great reduction of animal temperature is one of the most pressing causes of death. I showed that this effect of alcohol in reducing the animal temperature extends through all the members of the alcohol group of chemical substances, and that with increase of the specific weight of the spirit the reducing effect is intensified.

Thus, by particular and varied experiment, it was placed beyond the range of controversy that alcohol, instead of being a producer of heat in those who consume it, and therefore a food in that sense, is a depressor, and therefore not a food in that sense. The earlier scientists were confirmed in their peculiar views to the letter. I honour them for their originality and truth as heartily as I appreciate the privilege of having been the first to apply the modern and more accurate system of thermometric inquiry to test, and, as it turned out, to confirm and establish their observations and practices.

From the study of the action of alcohol on the temperature of animal bodies, I proceeded next to test it in respect to its effects as a sustainer of the muscular power. Here I had the experience of the trainers of athletes to guide me, an experience which was strongly against the use of alcohol as a supporter of muscular power and endurance. I preferred, however, to test again minutely the direct effect of alcohol on muscular contraction, the result being the determination that, with the exception of a very brief period during the earliest stage of alcoholic flushing, the muscular force, like the temperature, fails under its influence. In a word, I found that the helplessness of muscle under which the inebriated man sinks beneath the table, and under which the paralysed inebriate sinks into the grave, is a cumulative process, beginning so soon as the physiological effect of alcohol is pronounced, and continuing until the triumph of the agent over the muscular power is completed.