As early as in August 1917, the
Journal of the Norwegian Medical Association published its first report of abuse of the prescription rights. A doctor in Bergen had written so many prescriptions for spirits that he had been summoned by the Director of Health that spring to provide an explanation. The report of a doctor in Kristiania, who had been sitting in a bodega writing prescriptions for spirits for medical use at ten kroner each, also quite naturally attracted some attention. This was the free-spirited Dr. Gustav Michelsen (1862 – 1926).
The number of whisky doctors increased each year. When the Storting was discussing prescriptions for spirits in the winter of 1918, Johan Castberg (1862 – 1926) pointed to what he held to be a flagrant example of abuse of the prescription rights – a doctor who had written 550 prescriptions «in merely a single month», equivalent to 6 600 on an annual basis
(13). In 1921, altogether 21 doctors wrote 10 000 prescriptions or more. During the peak year of 1923, their number had risen to 29. This amounted to 2 % of all the nation’s doctors. In addition to these, there were 49 doctors who were each responsible for 5 000 – 10 000 prescriptions ( (2), p. 427), i.e. one in every 20 doctors wrote 5 000 or more prescriptions for spirits in 1923. Five thousand prescriptions alone are equal to 16 – 17 prescriptions every day for six days a week year round, not counting two weeks of holidays.
On 13 November 1923, the
Aftenposten daily had a front-page story on Dr. Anders Kornelius Meyer-Lie (1894 – 1946), a doctor in the Grünerløkka district in Kristiania, who for some time had been under investigation for prescription fraud (Figure 2) (14, 15). Readers were informed that he had earned 310 000 kroner so far in 1923, and that valuables amounting to 125 000 kroner had been confiscated. At about the same time, the doctor was excluded from the Norwegian Medical Association (16). Meyer-Lie was a young man, only 30 years old, and had not practised for more than a couple of years (17). When the case against him came up in the Kristiania District Court, Aftenposten brought daily reports of the proceedings. A top-ten list circulated in the court, and it turned out that Meyer-Lie came in a good second place, having written approximately 38 000 prescriptions for a total of 90 000 bottles of spirits.
Figure 2: Anders Kornelius Meyer-Lie (1894 – 1946) was a doctor in the Grünerløkka district in Kristiania, and was put on trial after writing approximately 38 000 prescriptions for spirits in 1923. Photo from Studentene fra 1913 [ The students of 1913]. He was convicted in the District Court, but acquitted by the Court of Appeal. Facsimile from Aftenposten,13 November 1923.
Nevertheless, his defence counsel pleaded for a full acquittal. According to the law, writing a prescription without an examination was not a punishable offence. Prescribing alcohol for prophylaxis was not prohibited before the enactment of the Prescription Act. The defence attorney claimed furthermore that there was no evidence that the doctor had known in any of the cases that the spirits would be used for purposes other than medical ones. But to no avail; Meyer-Lie was sentenced to 60 days’ imprisonment and confiscation of 100 000 kroner to the Treasury. The doctor appealed, and when the case came before the Court of Appeal in November 1924, he again made the front pages of
Aftenposten. After three days of proceedings, Meyer-Lie was acquitted.
Both in the District Court and in the Court of Appeal, the defence attorney pointed to a number of acquittals of doctors who, like Meyer-Lie, had written a large number of prescriptions. The man in first place, Gustav Michelsen (with 48 657 prescriptions to his name in 1923), had not even been charged. It would be clearly wrong to convict Meyer-Lie for committing acts for which others had been acquitted, the defence attorney claimed. The District Court paid little attention to this, but his viewpoint appears to have been given some weight by the Court of Appeal. The case against Meyer-Lie demonstrates the difficulties involved in attempts to prosecute the whisky doctors.
Already in the District Court, Meyer-Lie’s defence attorney had pointed out that the new Prescription Act would render it impossible for doctors to end up in the same situation as Meyer-Lie, since the prescription rights had been so drastically curtailed. Therefore he should not have been charged, the attorney claimed. Indirectly, he accused the authorities of the situation that had prevailed until 1924. It was the legislator who had made it possible for doctors to write such a large number of prescriptions. Court proceedings against whisky doctors after the Prescription Act had come into force appear to have been unrelated to this act, but were based on the mass prescription that had taken place before 1 March 1924. The main reason why it was so difficult to convict doctors of violations of their prescription rights was the difficulty involved in proving that the prescription was illegal (Figure 3). Even though the number of prescriptions was huge, this would not necessarily indicate that the doctors had no justification for their practices. In court, they invariably claimed to have such justification. Since most of the prescriptions were to be used as needed, it was difficult for the court to «overrule» the doctors’ decisions. The firmly established nature of the prescription rights also app-ears to have compounded the difficulties in obtaining convictions of the whisky doctors.
Figure 3: There was no clear distinction between the whisky doctors and ordinary doctors. The stretching of the prescription rights grew gradually worse until the Prescription Act came into force in the spring of 1924. Here, the artist Jens R. Nilssen (1880 – 1964) has caricatured the situation in a mountain resort during Easter, in the satirical magazine Hvepsen [ The Wasp], no. 13/1921. Drawing by © Jens R. Nilssen/BONO.