Other Collecting Areas

World History

Maggie Gallup Kopp, Curator
Kristi Young, Curator
Robert Maxwell, Adjunct Curator

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Medical Lore

Folk medicine could be considered any sort of medical treatment that is part of a cultural tradition that emphasizes anecdotal evidence and tradition rather than any kind of scientific authority. Medical licensing is fairly recent in the history of the world, and for most of its existence has been contained in large cities, funded by the wealthy upper class.

When anyone outside of a rather small geographical and socio-economic sphere had any sort of medical issue they had to turn somewhere else for answers. Aches and pains happen to everyone, especially as they age. Blemishes are the blight of any young person, and every mother has an expert way to cure her children of colds, fevers, flus, and coughs. Areas that are geographically or economically isolated have rich traditions in folk recipes.  Cures for common ailments were passed around and refined by generations, shifting as different ingredients became more or less readily available.

A large part of folk medicine is preventative. Cancer is a threat that has existed for a while, but is very difficult to get rid of. Using folklore, it’s possible to calm the worries of those who fear to get it. These cures are things that have not been proven to work except for the fact that there was some sort of correlation at some time. People follow these tips because they are easy to do, and if they work, great. If they don’t work, oh well. One tip was for a long life, avoid breathing in cat hair. (FA 01 682) Cat hair is a generally obnoxious thing to get in the lungs, so it is gladly avoided, and easily forgotten in the case of an early death. Other preventative measures involve rubbing castor oil into the head to prevent hair loss, and avoiding wearing a hat indoors. (FA 01 846)

Preventative tonics got made up every spring, and were tested over time. For a daily tonic, one family caught rainwater in a rusty tin container and drank it by the spoonful to prevent tiredness as well as using it for a dandruff prevention method. (FA 01 846) Their testing had to do with how they felt each spring after taking their tonics. Reportedly, they felt invigorated and refreshed, ready to face the day.

“The relationship between culture and health-related beliefs and behaviors is complex. Personal experiences, family attitudes, and group beliefs interact to provide and underlying structure for decision making during illness.” (Lee M. Pachter)

There are two kinds of folk remedies; the first is natural medicine is practical, useful advice that gets passed down because it works. Salves for burns or remedies for hiccups fall under this category. These cures come from trial and error or associations and observations made over a lifetime, connecting seemingly unrelated things.  One woman noticed over the course of her life that people with rosy cheeks tended to have heart trouble later. (FA 01 822) She is not a scientist, but her observations have helped her to warn people she knows against risks they may face.  Simple observations like that can lead to silly, yet simple solutions to annoying problem.  One family prevented snoring, by tying a spool to the back of the snorer to prevent them from sleeping on their back. (FA 01 846)

The other type of folk remedies is magic/religious medicine. These work using a placebo effect. They have no explanation, no evidence for working, but bring comfort just the same. One family believed that a silk string worn around the neck will keep mumps from going down to infect the rest of the body. (FA 01 846) The human brain can force the body to get better through pure belief, so sometimes the mere act of slathering on a nasty poultice can cure a body who just needs to believe they are being cured. A long time ago, a little boy was run over by a sled and his ear was cut off. His mother spit on it, then tied a cloth around his head to keep it in place, and the ear grew back. (FA 01 1192)

Like most folklore, there are some beliefs that no one knows where came from. Things that everyone avoids for fear of some sort of ailment seem completely stupid to other cultures. For instance, in certain cultures, it is believed that eating hot bread will kill you instantly, and eating ice cream on cold days will give you indigestion. (FA 01 682) Many cultures have strong beliefs about the interactions of humans with hot and cold.

Most of these beliefs have little basis in reality, but presumably have a great story to go along with them which has been lost to the ages. One family insisted that a child who plays with fire before bed will end up wetting the bed that night. (FA 01 846) There is no medical reason why these two things would be related, so it can only be assumed that the story came about either through evidence of its truth regarding a certain child or children, or as a warning to prevent certain children from playing with fire. In more recent years, folk remedies have become less necessary with the increase of hospital visits and the success of modern medicine in curing a multitude of injuries and ailments. In their stead, more and more tales of hospital incidents have come into the common experience. Stories of how doctors make mistakes support a sense of distrust which encourages folk medicine to flourish. To be fair though, medical professionals have their fair share of folk lore going the other way, telling stories of patients with weird ailments, or who fail to follow instructions and bring about their own embarrassment. The relationship between doctors and patients is rife with folklore.

However, as Jan Harold Brunvand once said, “People often turn to the traditional in a time of crisis.” When times get hard, medicine is expensive, and it still does not have all the answers.

The most common example of modern folk medicine is used to prevent expensive doctor’s visits for minor ailments. Many families collect home remedies that can be passed down through the generations. Cures of this type consist of easily accessed household ingredients. Over time, many of these remedies have been  scientifically tested and proven to work.

They have been refined into ointments for people to use without the accompanying discomfort that most folk remedies produce. In some of the more modern folk medicine projects, families have adopted the store brand version of their home remedies and merely advise each other to keep certain ointments or drinks around the house for certain difficulties. Getting a non-prescription medicine has become cheaper and more efficient than making up a mustard plaster or a poultice.

Despite occasionally containing the exact same ingredients, some of those who trust folk remedies do not want the simplified version of their recipe. They do not trust the pharmaceutical companies to do the job right. The isolations that caused the creation of the folk recipe also encourage a formation of self-reliance that hinders any sort of trust in authorities.


The true motto of folk medicine is If all else fails, an enema never hurts.” (FA 01 707)


Last Modified: February 11, 2014

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