A Drop of the Cure

Back in April, CNN reported that the governor of the Kenyan capital city, Nairobi, was including small bottles of Hennessy cognac in COVID-19 care packages being distributed to citizens. He erroneously claimed the cognac would act as a “throat sanitizer” and help combat the coronavirus.

Both the World Health Organization and Hennessy were quick to refute the governor’s claims that this drink in particular — or alcohol in general — can ward off COVID-19. But as far-fetched as the claim was, it was certainly not the first time alcohol had been called into duty against a pandemic respiratory disease. During the Spanish Influenza of 1918, the alcohol of choice wasn’t cognac, it was Scotch whisky and wine, and the population in need of protection was not in Africa, it was here in Cape Breton.

1918 letter from Dr. T. Rogers to Chief Justice Charles Doherty

Photo credit. Libraries and Archives Canada.
Reference: RG13-A-2. Volume/box number: 229. File number: 1918-2577.

A few years ago, while researching a lecture to coincide with a production of the Spanish influenza-themed play, Unity 1918, at the Boardmore theatre, I came across a letter sent from a Dr T. Rogers of Rosedale, Cape Breton to Chief Justice Charles Doherty in Ottawa. In it, Rogers implores the Chief Justice to relax the rules of prohibition to allow him to procure from Montreal “a case of wine and some Scotch whisky occasionally.” The good doctor was genuine and succinct in his request to the federal Government for help, writing:

Honoured Sir

The people here are infested with the terrible malady called Spanish Influenza. I am [a] medical practitioner in this small farming district. In order to save lives I cannot get or procure Scotch Whisky or wine as when pneumonia sets in these intoxicants protect the patients from fatal results. The prohibition act debars any such aid. Will your Lordship please send me permission to any reliable liquor known to you in Montreal where I can get a case of wine and Scotch Whisky occasionally. Also a letter of permission to be used to railroads in transit.

I feel that your Lordship will acquiesce in this great favour in view of terrible fatalities from the scourge. Prompt action will be appreciated by the community as your Lordship can realize.

With highest consideration,

My Lord, I remain sincerely, T. Rogers, M.D.

The letter was sent to Chief Justice Doherty in Ottawa on 30 November 1918 from Rosedale in Inverness County. Rosedale is about a third of the way inland between Whycocomagh and Port Hood as the crow flies. It is not far from Glencoe. The letter was received 4 Dec 1918 and  so stamped by the Dept. of Justice. Dr. Roger’s handwriting, tightly crammed on a small piece of paper, indicates the sense of worry and urgency he was writing his letter under.


Temperance movements had begun in the early 19th century in Canada. Prohibition was federally legislated on 1 April 1918, with an exception for alcohol used for medicinal purposes. Confronted with the terrible symptoms of the flu, physicians searched for what they considered the best remedies possible, including alcohol.

Charles Doherty

Charles Doherty

I couldn’t find out if Dr. Rogers’ request was fulfilled or not. I could find no online references to him, though a thorough investigation of the paper records in the Beaton Institute Archives or a scan of old newspaper microfiche may reveal something about him.

As for Chief Justice Charles Doherty, he was a lawyer, educator and judge. An MP from 1908-21 and minister of justice and attorney general from 1911-21. He represented Canada at the Versailles Peace Conference in 1918-19 and was a delegate to the League of Nations in 1920-22. He is credited with initiating the Canadian Bar Association in 1912 and was its first honorary president in 1914.

Rather than be too quick to criticize the action of the Kenyan governor when the COVID-19 pandemic began, perhaps we should reflect on the past and the adversities that beset our own ancestors. Faced with such an uncertain “scourge” today, as Dr. Rogers described the flu 102 years ago, perhaps an occasional shot of whisky, wine or cognac over the upcoming Christmas season in our own home will give us all a dose of fortitude as we await the coming COVID-19 vaccines early in the new year.



Paul MacDougall


Paul MacDougall is a Senior Instructor in Health Sciences at CBU, a writer and playwright and enjoys the outdoors, all seasons round. He can be found @franeymountain literally and virtually.