The Willis-Campbell Act was passed by Congress in 1921. It was during the second year of National Prohibition (1920-1933). The purpose of the law was to limit the right of physicians to prescribe medicinal alcohol to their patients.
The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution established National Prohibition. But the Amendment was very brief. It lacked specifics, such as a definition of alcoholic beverage, any exemptions for religious use, and so on. So the Volstead Act was passed to provide the details needed to enforce Prohibition.
U.S. Attorney General Mitchell Palmer was a Prohibitionist. Nevertheless, he had ruled that the the National Prohibition Act (known as the Volstead Act) did not limit the authority of physicians to prescribe alcohol for medicinal purposes. Proponents of Prohibition (‘drys’) saw this as a distressing loophole in the law.
Two drys, Senator Frank Willis and Representative Robert Campbell, introduced a bill to address the matter. It was titled An Act Supplemental to the National Prohibition Act. The bill passed the House (250 to 93) and the Senate (39 to 20).
The Willis-Campbell Act is sometimes called the anti-beer law and the beer emergency bill. It permitted physicians to prescribe only wine or distilled spirits to patients. Neither could exceed 24% alcohol by volume. That equals 48 proof. It also limited the number of prescription forms the government could issue to a doctor to 100 per month. The law further limited the total total amount of alcohol that could be prescribed to any patient. It was one pint per person per ten-day period.
Physicians objected that beer should not be excluded. In so doing they stressed its health and medical benefits. But the hearings were dominated by drys. They argued that medicinal alcohol was an undesirable loophole in the existing law. Prohibition was still popular at the time and the bill easily passed.
The song, ‘Oh! Doctor,’ was published in 1920. It may have been helpful to passing the Willis’“Campbell Act.
[verse 1] Most ev’rybody you meet now a days[chorus] Oh! Doctor, Oh! Doctor, I’m feeling blue.
Seems to be feeling so blue.
They say it is an imposition
To enforce this prohibition
And I think so too.
But Congress has given Doctors the power
To hand out the Brandy and Rye.
And now in their office at most any hour
You’re bound to hear somebody cry.
Oh! Doctor, Oh! Doctor, it’s up to you.
The drug stores on the corners are filled with liquor mourners.
I told a drug clerk my condition,
He said, “Go see your physician!”
Oh! Doctor, Oh! Doctor, don’t feel my pulse.
That’s not what I need for results.
Write the prescription and please make it say
“Take with your meals,” I eat ten times a day.
Oh! Doctor, Oh! Doctor, help me pull thro’
For I’ll never get well ’till you do.[verse 2] When Congress told us that liquor must go
See AlsoTemperance in America Timeline.
Things looked quite bad for a while.
We never thought they’d pass new by laws
That would force on us these dry laws.
But now we can smile
For I have a way to fool each politician
Who said ev’ry state must go dry.
And now when I’m sad and I’m lacking ambition
I go to my doctor and cry. [repeat chorus]
The Supreme Court upheld all provisions of the Willis-Campbell Act. (See Note 2.) The Act remained in effect until the repeal of Prohibition.
The Willis-Campbell Act restricted both the medical profession and the rights of states.
Appel, J. ‘”Physicians are not bootleggers.” The short, peculiar life of the medicinal alcohol movement. Bull Hist Med, 2008, 82(2), 355-386.
Bureau of Prohibition. Digest of Supreme Court Decisions Interpreting the National Prohibition Act and the Willis-Campbell Act. Washington: GPO, 1928.
Engdahl, A. A curious elixir: medicinal beer in the age of Prohibition. Cal Polyptych State U.
Gage, B. Just what the doctor ordered. Smithson, 2005, 36(1), 112-117.
Olcott Attacks Medical Beer Ban. New York Times, Jan. 1, 1922, p. 23.
Pain, S. The battle for medicinal beer. New Scien , 2008, 199( 2680), 44-45.
Note 1. The lyrics of ‘Oh! Doctor’ are reproduced solely for informational and educational purposes.
Note 2. These were Supreme Court cases upholding the Willis-Campbell Act: Samuel W. Lambert v. Yellowly et al. Also James Everard’s Breweries v. Day, Edward and John Burke v. Blair, Commissioner of Internal Revenue, et al. The latter two cases were heard and decided together. In addition, seven cases challenging the 18th Amendment and the Volstead Act were combined, heard together, and decided together. They are the National Prohibition Cases. By a 7 to 2 vote the Supreme Court upheld National Prohibition in 1920.
Note 3. Wikipedia erroneously reports that the Willis-Campbell Act “prohibited doctors from prescribing beer or liquor….” That is clearly false. Willis-Campbell explicitly permitted physicians to prescribe both wine and liquor. Wikipedia is a non-professional source. Its assertions should always be independently verified.