Saturday, July 24, 2004

Perhaps It Really Does Cure What Ails You

Sharon's mention of alcohol and gout at "Early Modern Notes" has me thinking again about Berkeley's interest in tar-water. One of the important thrusts of his advocacy of the tonic was the replacement of alcoholic beverages with tar-water. It has been shown that the ancient view that alcohol contributes in some way to the gout is true (apparently beer is the worst offender); and Berkeley himself insisted in one of his letters that his own gout was alleviated by drinking tar-water. I have often thought that there may have been something to Berkeley's advocacy of tar-water, that he wasn't just reading into the evidence.--Not so much, of course, because tar-water is the universal remedy Berkeley thought it was, but because tar-water may have had a comparative health value, in comparison with what people were drinking at the time. The things that water dissolves from the tar are antiseptics like acetic acid, carbolic acid, and wood creosote; it may have been the case that tar improved the water quality in poor areas (like Cloyne, where Berkeley resided), and tar-water certainly was part of a campaign for more moderate drinking of alcohol. More precise information is needed to say for sure whether this would have much effect at all; this would make a really cool historical-scientific research project. This is why historians of philosophy need laboratories....

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