Traditional medicine, although viewed as unconventional and often in contradiction to established medical practices, was once commonplace in South Carolina. Since the founding of the colony in the late seventeenth century, South Carolina suffered from a lack of trained medical professionals, and until their widespread availability in the latter half of the twentieth century, traditional medicine met that need. Combining ingredients that could be purchased at the general store, patent medicines, and common herbs, traditional medicine was based on the common healing practices of the three cultures that resided in South Carolina: Native American, African, and European.
European colonists were impressed with the healing skills of Indians, whose use of local plants to treat sickness and injuries frequently brought admirable results. African slaves brought their own treatments to the New World and quickly added practices learned from the Indians. Slaves became so proficient in the use of traditional medicine that it became rare for a plantation not to have a midwife or doctor-woman to care for the sick. A drawback, at least for slaveowners, was the knowledge of natural poisons that slaves also possessed. The threat of poisoning constantly worried slaveowners and prompted the Commons House of Assembly in 1751 to pass a law condemning to death any slave who passed on knowledge of poison-making.
While Native American and African remedies may not have been much more effective than those of the Old World, European colonists were willing to try them when their own remedies failed. In the mid-1700s the South-Carolina Gazette published the respective cures for rattlesnake poison by two slaves, Caesar and Sampson. Legislators were so grateful for the cures that they purchased the slaves’ freedom and gave each a pension. In some instances effective traditional treatments were adopted by medical professionals in both Europe and America, such as the use of Indian pinkroot by the Cherokees as a cure for worms.
Traditional medicine practices were distributed throughout the population orally or in print. Newspapers often featured home cures for a variety of common ailments. By the latter half of the eighteenth century, books such as William Buchan’s Domestic Medicine and John Wesley’s Primitive Physick were sources of readily available treatments. Perhaps the most famous collection of traditional medicine remedies was Dr. Francis Porcher’s Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests. Published in Charleston in 1863 at the request of the Confederate government, this book detailed the medicinal uses of more than six hundred species of southern plants and eased the effects of the Union blockade on medical supplies.
The practice of traditional medicine persisted in South Carolina for decades after the publication of Porcher’s book. The use of traditional medicine waned, however, with the increasing availability of professional medical care in the twentieth century.
Morton, Julia F. Folk Remedies of the Low Country. Miami, Fla.: E. A. Seemann, 1974.
Moss, Kay K. Southern Folk Medicine, 1750–1820. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999.
Waring, Joseph I. A History of Medicine in South Carolina. Vol. 1, 1670–1825. Columbia: South Carolina Medical Association, 1964.
Wood, Peter. “People’s Medicine in the Early South.” Southern Exposure 6, no. 2 (1978): 50–53.