In traditional folk medicine, the beliefs, techniques, sayings, and practices leading to cures and the reduction of pain are passed along by word of mouth and through observation. The transmission of medical knowledge usually takes place within the whole community and in some cases among special folk medicine practitioners. Serious ailments without known cures, such as cancer, and less dangerous but painful or annoying problems such as hiccups, warts, and earaches, are typical candidates for traditional medical cures.
Folk medical practices are usually grouped into three categories, and examples of each are found in abundance in Appalachia and West Virginia. A common, familiar category is that of household medicine. Kitchen staples such as salt and honey ease scratchy throats and hacking coughs. Turpentine mixed with sugar reduces stomach pains, an application of moist tobacco alleviates the pain of insect bites, and tobacco smoke helps with earaches, as does boiled human urine.
A second group of remedies uses plants and herbs found in the garden and in the wild. Ginseng harvested in West Virginia and made into a medicinal tea strengthens digestion and reduces fatigue. Practitioners as illustrious as George Washington and as far away as the residents of China have used American ginseng for strength and sexual potency. Foxglove is prepared as a heart tonic, sassafras is used as a blood thinner, and pokeberries aid recovery from intestinal difficulties. C. F. ‘‘Catfish’’ Gray of Mason County was a well-known herb doctor in the second half of the 20th century. Knowledge of herbs had been in his family for generations.
A third group of medical practices relies on magic. Ancient beliefs in the magical relationship between similar objects (homeopathic magic) on the one hand, and the magical connection between objects that have been in physical contact (contagious magic) on the other, provide the rationale for this category. Hence, warts may be transferred to a potato or to a dishcloth by touch. Pain can be ‘‘cut’’ by drawing a knife across a diseased limb.
While some were learned from the Indians, a great many of the folk cures found in West Virginia came over with the early immigrants from Europe. The use of household products, herbs, and magical beliefs readily crossed the Atlantic and served both the frontiersman and the aristocrat. In early times, folk treatments and those administered by trained physicians were often virtually the same.
As academic medicine advanced, traditional cures were supplanted. However, they were never abandoned, and sometimes supplemented the treatments and prescriptions of trained doctors. In rural areas including much of West Virginia, a scarcity of medical doctors and hospital facilities led to a widespread continuance of traditional practices which persists even today. This is also due in part to the high costs of conventional medical treatment and prescription drugs as well as the spiraling charges for medical insurance. It should also be noted that many traditional remedies remain in use because they work, and that herbal remedies are finding renewed respect among professionals.
This Article was written by Barry Ward
Last Revised on November 07, 2010
Crellin, John K. & Jane Philpott. Trying to Give Ease. Durham: Duke University Press, 1990.
Hand, Wayland. American Folk Medicine. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1976.