The debate over health care in America is not something new, but rather something old. At one point, it focused on “granny-women,” folk healers who relied on herbal medicine and ancient traditions to treat their patients – apparently with some success.
The granny-woman phenomenon arrived in the New World starting in the 1700’s with successive waves of Scots-Irish immigrants who brought their old ways with them, including their home medicine practices. These healers were especially common in the Appalachian region where doctors were scarce.
Midwifery in some areas of Appalachia was dominated by granny-women even into the early 20th century.
In his 1921 book “The Southern Highlander and His Homeland,” author John C. Campbell said of the granny-woman tradition: “Though superstitious she has a fund of common sense, and she is a shrewd judge of character. In sickness, she is the first to be consulted, for she is generally something of an herb doctor, and her advice is sought by the young people of half the countryside in all things from a love affair to putting a new web in the loom.”
Some of the remedies the granny-women used were red clover, sassafras, cherry bark and pennyroyal, often brewed into a tea, as well as various roots, some of them now obscure. The concoctions treated congestion, chills, colds, pregnancies and sometimes an assortment of serious maladies.
One intriguing conviction is that granny-women tended to run in certain families – they were sometimes believed to have inherited the power of healing from a parent. In this matter, their skills were regarded as a “gift.”
Along the way, the granny-women of Appalachia traded some of their knowledge with neighboring Cherokees who were there before them, and the two folk healing traditions rubbed off on one another.
Partly out of belief, and partly out of necessity, many of the folks in remote mountain areas of Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky and North Carolina came to rely on granny-women. By some accounts, up to half of the births in the Appalachian region in the 19th century were managed by granny- women.
But their eminence in rural healthcare in the region was not to last.
In an insightful 2005 dissertation at East Tennessee State University, scholar Harriet P. Masters recounted how granny-women were vanquished by a powerful medical lobby.
“The early twentieth century saw the granny-women discredited and subject to elimination as a result of a purposeful campaign conducted by the male-dominated medical profession,” Masters wrote. Forcing the granny-women to give up their work may not have been that hard, considering that they were not an organized group and mostly did not take money for their work.
Masters concluded their banishment may have been unfair.
“Using knowledge of herbal remedies, the granny-woman played an integral part in the survival of the inhabitants of the region, especially related to childbirth.,” she asserted.
Today, midwifery has again regained some of its popularity and trust among pregnant women in the United States. There has also been a recognized trend by Americans toward more reliance on herbal medicines in recent years.
But whether “granny-women” can make a comeback is still a question without an answer.