Health & Medicine

Uncommonwealth: Medical remedies from the 19th and early 20th centuries part of UK exhibit

Megan Mummey, University of Kentucky collections management archivist, checked in on an exhibit at the UK Special  Collections Library that looks at superstitions and legends related to Kentucky medical care before modern medicine
Megan Mummey, University of Kentucky collections management archivist, checked in on an exhibit at the UK Special Collections Library that looks at superstitions and legends related to Kentucky medical care before modern medicine Lexington Herald-Leader

The glory days of folk medicine in Kentucky — in the 19th and early 20th centuries — yielded some truly fancy and fanciful cures.

Groundhog grease for burns, for example, was considered a fine idea, as was cutting a double slit in the skin and packing it with horse hair, which would surely rid you of rheumatism. Bitter apple was another "cure" for rheumatism, a nonspecific term for arthritislike pain.

Sufferers of thrush, a yeast infection, were advised to take a shoe from "a total stranger. ... Put water therein, run it back and forth, then wash patient's gums with it."

Once you chugged shoe water, apparently, thrush would be the least of your problems.

The 19th century yielded a raft of cures for ailments routine and specialized, according to Notions and Potions, an exhibit at the University of Kentucky's special collections library. The remedies were cobbled together from the working papers of area residents and farmers.

Some cures still hold some credibility: The plant boneset, suggested for pneumonia, is still marketed as an herbal remedy to ease influenza.

The archivists who put together the exhibition assembled a collection of Kentucky Kernel articles about the 1919 Spanish flu epidemic. Female students were sent home, while the male students struggled to stay healthy.

For a cholera epidemic in the 1830s, the Louisville Daily Herald earnestly advised its readers to "Employ no stimulants — no red pepper, no laudanum or burnt brandy — to check it, but to immediately take 15 or 20 grains of calomel and go to bed. There remain till the proper action of your bowels is restored."

Calomel was mercury chloride, widely used in the 18th and 19th centuries as a purgative or cathartic. Sometimes it did more than clean out the insides; it also made hair and teeth fall out.

In 1833, Harriet Kerfoot wrote from Georgetown to her friend Ellen Letcher about the news from Lexington's cholera epidemic: "Its ravages are confined to no class or sex, the young, the old, the gay, the infirm, the robust, the bacchanalian as well as the rotary of temperance, the impious alike the pious Christian fall victims to this scourge of nations. ... There are 60 or 70 dying per day."

William "King" Solomon, who had been sold into indentured servitude to a freed slave, did not flee Lexington during the epidemic, staying to bury the dead. He was credited with helping hasten the epidemic's end. In 1908, money was raised to give Solomon a memorial tombstone for his grave.

Mammoth Cave was considered a haven for those suffering from what was then known as consumption and is now known as tuberculosis. In 1839, Dr. John Croghan bought the cave and installed 16 consumptives there in the belief the air would revive them.

After several died, their bodies were laid out on what was dubbed "Corpse Rock"; a drawing of the era showed the dead being borne across the river Styx to the afterlife.

Archivist Megan Mummey's favorite part of the exhibit is the Kentucky man convinced that flannel was the cause of consumption. Other ideas about the causes of consumption included poor diet, vigorous exercise, lack of exercise, hereditary predisposition, the blowing of trumpets and tightly laced corsets.

Although consumption was to be feared, it was also something of a fashion statement. The exhibit records women deliberating making themselves pale to mimic the "romantic" consumptive look of the "white plague."

Lexington still has a law on the books that was passed during tuberculosis epidemics — this one a late 19th-century mandate — against public spitting.

Spitters were discouraged from expectorating on the streets or using spittoons, and encouraged to carry a supply of clean cloths in which to discharge their effluent.

Visitors to the exhibit are asked to share their own "folk cures" on a dry-erase board. It's unclear whether visitors believe that baking soda and water is still the best treatment for stings, as recorded on the board, or if going outside with wet hair causes colds.

For sure, the person who suggests that chewing garlic cloves wards off a cold you feel coming on is certain of it: "I do this and it works," writes the unnamed individual.


Notions and Potions: Folklore and Superstition in Medicine and Infectious Disease

Where: Main lobby of the University of Kentucky Special Collections Library in Margaret I. King Building at UK

When: Nov. 30. Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mon.-Fri.

Admission: Free

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