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Medicine in Rural Appalachia

A look at how our ancestors treated ailments.

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Type: Article
Resource: GenWeekly
Prepared by: Melissa Slate
Word Count: 437 (approx.)
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For our ancestor's living in isolated parts of the Appalachians, doctors were few and far between, if any were available at all. Most times, mountain medicine was a blend of superstition, or perhaps the power of suggestion, faith healing, and herbal remedies. The study of this area of social history is quite fascinating. Some of the remedies range from being quite amusing to the downright dangerous.

For the most part, if a doctor was not available, mountain medicine was practiced by a local midwife or a "Granny Healer." Simple ailments not requiring much care were taken care of at home, using methods handed down through the ages. Physicians became more prolific in some communities when coal camps were set up and the companies employed a physician to meet the needs of workers and their families.

One of the more interesting remedies that I have run across was for a black-widow spider bite. The bitten person was to drink liquor heavily from 3 p.m. until 7 p.m.; in theory it wouldn't make you drunk, and you would be healed. With what little I know about mountain liquor, my guess is that by 7 p.m. the person didn't care if he had been bitten or not! Grandpa's "tonic," in fact, held a major place in mountain medicine. Liquor was the cure-all for everything from Measles to toothache. Liquor and moonshining had a culture all its own in the mountains.

Another remedy that I regarded with much skepticism was the use of kerosene. The kerosene was placed on sugar and swallowed to relieve sore throat. This one I put in the dangerous category. For congestion, you were to render the fat of a polecat and est two or three spoonfuls. This will bring up the phlegm. One of the more credible remedies that I encountered was for broken bones. A mixture of red clay and water was made; splints were placed on either side of the bone, and the clay mixture was applied and let dry, forming a makeshift cast. This one goes in the makes sense category. For earaches and toothache, a bag of hops was heated and applied to the area. This one seems to be in the category of the relatively harmless and quite helpful, as heat is a modern medical treatment for both of these conditions.

Now, I wouldn't recommend trying any of these remedies at home, but they are useful from a folklore standpoint in giving us a view of how our ancestors lived their daily lives and their social culture. It is really worth investigating a few of these home remedies - some may even make you chuckle.

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2008.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

*Effective May 2010, GenWeekly articles that are more than five years old no longer require a subscription for full access.

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