Documented medical use of wormwood can be dated back to the Ebers Papyrus, an Egyptian medical document dating from about 1552 B.C. and the oldest preserved medical document . This papyrus is believed to be a copy of the even more ancient books of Thoth (3500 B.C.). The name "wormwood" is derived from its anthelmintic properties, which were recognized by the ancient Egyptians.
Wormwood, in the context of its bitter taste, is mentioned several times in the Old Testament (Jeremiah 9:15, 13:15). In the biblical context, the plant represented a curse, calamity (Lamentations 3:15) or injustice (Amos 5:7). In Revelations 8:11, the Greek equivalent ho apsinthos is used as a name for a star that fell into the waters and turned them bitter. The Greek word apsinthion – undrinkable – is most probably the ancestor of the word absinthe. The Greek mathematician and philosopher, Pythagoras of Samos (569-475 B.C.), recommended wine-soaked wormwood leaves to alleviate labor pains; Hippocrates (~460-377 B.C.) used wormwood extracts for the treatment of menstrual pain and rheumatism .
Pliny the Elder (23–79), the Roman scholar and scientist, also mentioned extracts of wormwood in his opus Historia Naturalis . In the Middle Ages, wormwood was used as a purge and vermifuge, and it developed towards a "general remedy for all diseases" and was "a herb of Mars" for its medical powers . Wormwood's bitter taste inspired women in those days to apply it to their nipples to encourage the weaning of their babies. In fact, Shakespeare has Juliet's nurse expound upon this in Romeo and Juliet.
The image of just a bitter medicine changed to a popular drink among the masses in the 16th century. The so-called Purl of Tudor England was a drink composed of hot ale and wormwood. Dried leaves of wormwood were infused in proof-spirits, distilled, and sweetened with sugar as prescribed in Smith's Complete Body of Distilling in 1731 . The French physician Pierre Ordinaire is supposedly the originator of the classic absinthe recipe. Being acquainted with the ancient use of wormwood, he began to develop a recipe for an alcoholic drink, which probably contained wormwood, anise, hyssop, dittany, sweet flag, melissa and varying amounts of coriander, veronica, chamomile, parsley and (allegedly) spinach. Dr. Ordinaire, who had fled the French revolution, settled down in Val-de-Travers in western Switzerland, which has remained an important centre of absinthe production. In the small town of Couvet, the elixir (68%vol) soon attained the nickname fée verte.
After Dr. Ordinaire's death, his recipe came into the possession of Henri-Louis Pernod, who began the commercial production of absinthe in 1797. In 1805, Pernod moved to Pontarlier, France, to serve the French market; the distillery had one still with a daily capacity of 16 litres. The widespread use of alcoholic drinks containing wormwood extract might have also resulted from the use of wormwood as a preventive measure for helminthiasis and fevers during the French conquest of Algeria (1830–1847). The soldiers returning to France discovered absinthe as a tasty substitute for their wormwood medicine .
Due to a rising interest in anise-based spirits as well as increased promotion and advertising, the production of Pernod's absinthe was increased up to a 125,000 liter scale in 1896. This was aided by the drastically reduced production of red wine in these years due to major damages caused by the vine pest. The emerald spirit was, however, known to be enjoyed excessively on both sides of the Atlantic .
The annual per capita consumption of absinthe in France increased fifteen-fold between 1875 and 1913. According to an article in The Times (1915), French consumption of pure alcohol in 1876 was 15,500 hectoliters; it was 10 times that amount in 1908, and in 1913 it had reached the figure of 239,492 hectoliters, representing 60 liters per inhabitant . Parallel to this mass consumption and its consequences, anti-alcohol movements, winegrowers and clergy called for the banning of absinthe. Many murders and other acts of violence were attributed to the influence of absinthe.
Furthermore, the medical community had developed a strong scientific and medical case against absinthe, attributing an increase in insanity and other serious medical problems to an overindulgence in the drink . It was widely believed that the problem with alcohol was not the quantity consumed but the quality. The absinthe prohibition crusade in France was a paradoxical campaign in which the wine-producers, suppliers of the vast majority of alcoholic drinks consumed, backed the temperance movement . The attention being given to absinthe's supposed unique qualities can be seen as an attempt to reduce alcoholism without specifically touching alcohol. However, it also may have diverted efforts away from the genuine dangers of heavy alcohol consumption .
At first, concerns about absinthe were ignored, especially by the French government, due to lucrative revenues resulting from the enormous scale of absinthe sales. By the end of the 19th century, temperance forces had succeeded in getting the attention of almost all of France through educational programs and public awareness campaigns. In 1908 a bill was passed that, ironically, increased the amount of alcohol in absinthe, the argument being that the requirement for higher alcoholic strength would eliminate those producers who used artificial essences with lower standards of purity . Only rising concerns about a weakening of military power in the light of absinthe abuse, especially in the army, pressured the French government to ban absinthe in 1915. The U.S. Department of Agriculture had already issued the Food Inspection Decision 147, which banned absinthe in the U.S., on 25th July 1912. Belgium, Switzerland and Italy had also passed laws prohibiting absinthe in 1905, 1908 and 1913 respectively; finally, Germany outlawed the green fairy on 27th April 1923 .
Prestwich concluded that the prohibition of absinthe did little to improve the health of the French people as deprived of their traditional absinthe consumers merely switched to similar drinks. In addition, by stressing the problem of essences and impure alcohol, temperance campaigners distracted both medical research and the public from the real cause of alcoholism, namely the excessive consumption of any type of alcoholic drink .
For further information about the social history of absinthe, which goes beyond the scope of this review, the book of Adams is recommended . Further information is available in the works of Arnold [19, 20], Baker , Conrad , Lanier , Marrus , and Prestwich . Information about absinthes' paraphernalia and the drinking ritual is available in an article of Hood .