Season 1, Episode 12
Dr. Michele Williams on Medical Practices in Wachovia
Dr. Michele Williams of Historic Bethania joins Maizie and Casey to discuss some common thoughts and practices surrounding health and medicine in 18th Century Wachovia, the expectations of healing during this time, and people other than Doctor Kalberlahn who played a role in the treatment of their communities.
Dr. Michele Williams
Announcer: James Landolf
Transcript for Dr. Michele Williams on Medical Practices in Wachovia
Announcer: This is Moravian Mornings. A podcast discussing the history surrounding the Moravians who settled in Wachovia.
Casey: Good morning everyone. Welcome to our last episode of season one. Thank you all so much for listening. Before we get started, I just wanted to quickly mention that as of right now, this podcast series is actually my final project for my MA in History. Because of this and the fact that we really want to hear from our listeners, we are making a survey that will be available on Historic Bethabara Park’s website. That’s Historicbethabara.org. You’ll find the Moravian Mornings webpage under the “learn” tab on the park’s website, and this is where the survey will be made available. We would really appreciate if you took the survey. It’ll only take a few minutes. You can tell us what you liked about the series, what you disliked, any topics that you would like us to discuss. This will really us decide how to continue developing Moravian Mornings. Alright, thank you so much for listening, and now that that is out of the way, we are here with Dr. Michele Williams of Historic Bethania who has PhD in paleoethnobotany. We thought having her on would bring another perspective on medicinal practices and healthcare within Wachovia. Maizie, if you’d like to start.
Maizie: So, we briefly touched on the practice of bloodletting. Could you expand more on common thoughts and practices surrounding health and healing in the 18th Century?
Michele: It’s an interesting time in medical history from a European standpoint, because they’re coming out of a medieval system of health and healing and heading towards a different concept that brings us into the late 1800s, early 1900s when there was this huge explosion in the science of medicine, and so, they’re stuck sort of in the middle. So that bloodletting actually has to do with what you guys already described which was the humoral concept that you had these humors and if they were out of balance then you would have to fix that by doing things like bloodletting, or there would be medics that would be applied, or there was cupping, which is another form of not quite bloodletting but of bruising, bruising the skin that is supposed to help rebalance those humors. Today, I can’t think of anything that would be similar. There are some medical, very rare medical conditions where you have to do bloodletting even today, but it’s not because you got bonked on the head with a log. One of the things I always explain about traditional medicines is that they worked very well for very specific things, but they’re not generally easy to understand from a western, European modern medical system. You know, they don’t fit what we expect.
Casey: By 1764, Christian Reuter’s survey states that there were 65 different plants in the Bethabara medicinal garden. What are some of the more common plants that the Moravians used in treatment?
Michele: One of my favorites is cucumbers and cantaloupe. You know, again, for modern medicinal purposes, there’s not a lot of cucumber and cantaloupe being used, but both of them were supposed to have cooling effects. Actually a lot of the medicine that was being practiced in Bethabara, there would have been the obvious traumatic injuries like you have to reset a bone or you have to shut a wound, but a lot of things, again if you go back to that humoral balancing issue, you have to cool things or heat things up, and so, many times foods would be used not as an application but as an internal way of consuming something to help rebalance your humors. There’s descriptions of soups and salads being a very common, if not daily then monthly or weekly to help rebalance so you don’t get so out of balance that you get sick.
Maizie: I was about to say, we didn’t talk about this in the other episode but I do know that with the humors, each humor was, I guess, related to either hot or cold and then dry or wet, so that would make sense that they’re using that to cool down or something like that.
Michele: The plant that obviously people still know that we don’t have in the medicinal garden anymore would have been opium, and opium works. It’s obviously an addictive plant, an addictive chemical, but opium would have been very useful in things like you’ve got a serious injury and you need to have pain relief. It would have been a very valuable and effective plant to use against that horrible pain you might have.
Casey: Before we go any further, didn’t you say you have a funny disclaimer that you always like to do with these talks?
Michele: Oh, I do, yes! I always tell people, don’t use any of this as medical advice. I am not a professional. I have a PhD in understanding how plants work, and I can tell you that they don’t always work the way we might hope. The example I give for that is the most common illness that still happens in developing nations, is Dysentery or Cholera. Both of those obviously have a very visual effect. For some traditional cultures, that is a sign that your body is trying to rid itself of something very poisonous. As a result, the first thing that a medicine might do is actually might make that symptom, that we see as the problem, worse. When you hear about medicines and how they were used, for example a plant was used for Dysentery, you don’t know for sure what the expectation of the practitioner and the individual being treated what they had in mind that was supposed to happen. If you’re expecting a much worse condition so you can get better then you would be disappointed if it just took care of the Cholera immediately.
Similarly, very rarely do any of the records describe the exact dosage or even very good details most of the time about which plant was being used. Most people know that Chamomile, which we still have in the medicinal garden there at Bethabara, is used to help with relaxation. Importantly, they don’t say whether its German or Roman Chamomile, whether you use the flower, the leaves, or the roots. How is it being applied? Is it being made into a tea? Is it being chopped up and put onto a poultice? Is the bioactive chemical in Chamomile, can it be extracted through water? If you don’t know those things then all you know is that a common name of a plant was being used for an expectation that we might not even understand what sleeplessness meant to someone in the 1700s.
Casey: I know nothing about medicinal plants or using plants for anything. They don’t mention the roots or the leaves or what exactly they all do in the records.
Michele: We can do the whole thing on this, because I think that’s the most interesting thing. You can very easily say that there were 65 plants in the list and say exactly what those 65 plants were being used for, but if you don’t know the dosage, and the application, and the preparation on the one hand for making the medicine and you don’t know what the expectation of healing is then you’re really just talking about a nebulas thing. You don’t know what the expectation of how you’re going to get better from the disease is according to 1700 Moravian emotional expectations of healing then you really can’t talk about what plants might be useful today, which is really what people are interested in when they hear about medicinal plants. There are the anecdotes about how the plants were being used historically but what they really want to know is how can I use it today, which is why I always say don’t. The way you use it today is don’t use it today. Seek professional advice.
Maizie: Why were these common plants thought to have healing properties? Was there any sort of science to back up the claims that these plants could be used in treatment?
Michele: That’s a great question. I think at the time, there was one hundred percent belief that these plants worked, and remember, many of the cases that they talk about the doctor in Bethabara, he does have a garden, but they’re talking about real mechanical things, broken bones and big wounds that need healed. When it came to a disease that was more complex, he actually, as you said in your last episode, was at a loss of how to make the tools he had work for the Typhoid Fever. The people expected it to work and, again, it could be something as simple as it felt cooling. A cucumber is a cooling sensation even to us today, so if you believe that your humors were too hot or not wet enough then a cucumber, any cucumbers could really help solve that, but I don’t that it is something we today see as medically active.
Maizie: It’s so crazy because we’re so quick to see these treatments as being crazy, but it was just a sort of trail and error process, and we still do that today in medicine. We do have a lot more information, but as we see with Covid, we’re still trying things that aren’t really working, and we don’t really know what to do, so it’s not that different.
Michele: I’m always amazed at what people wanted to have happened, there were plants that will make that happen. There are plants that always will have a bioactive effect, and if you did a survey of all the plants in the world and compared them to all the plants that are used medicinally, there is a greater relationship between those medicinally plants in bioactivity than non-medicinally plants in bioactivity. Now whether or now that bioactivity will actually fix a problem is another question. It just depends on what you want the plant to do. Cucumbers cool, but we don’t worry very much about our humors at this time.
Casey: What were some of the negative effects of these common treatments during the 18th Century?
Michele: I think that the number one problem was that many of them did not take care of the disease. If you look at the list of diseases that were commonly treated with herbs, a lot of the things are coughs and colds. They’re rapid wound healing. They are not diseases that we consider real killers. The anecdote I always give for this one is snake bite. There usually are some snake bite remedies in any medicinal plant pantheon. Now, the trick with snake bites is most of the time if a snake bites you, it is not a poisonous snake, so automatically, most of the time, the antivenom that the medicinal plants are supposed to provide works. You get it? It wasn’t a poisonous snake, so of course it worked. Of the times that you are actually are bit by a poisonous snake, it only injects venom a certain percentage of the time, so most of the time those snake bites are healed by your snake bite remedy. Now, those few times when you’re bit by a poisonous snake and it does inject poison into you, well then that was just God’s way of punishing you for something you did. How many times, knock on wood, that we get bit by a snake, do you take the time to do a proper ID of the snake? Personally, I would be running and screaming, so was it a poisonous snake? I don’t know, but I got a snake bite. Give me my snake bite remedy. Those very few times that the snake bites and it injects venom then all of a sudden there’s other reasons that you would be punished within a religious system.
My focus, my research focus had always been on Native Americans and prehistoric medicines, and with that said, one of the questions I always think is interesting is how do you find native medicinal plants when you move? So when the Moravians came from Germany and they got to the New World, they obviously brought some of their plants with them, but then they encountered this whole new array of plants as they came into Pennsylvania and then a whole new array of plants even when they came into Wachovia. I think it’s interesting to think about how you would treat people with the plants around you, and it looks like many of the doctors were good botanists. They were able to see similarities between native mints and the mints they had known in Europe or in the tannin effects of oak trees and the oak trees that they’d known in Europe, so that ability to adapt I think is very interesting. Also, through time you have to remember that diseases change. Covid has taught us that very quickly that every year new influenza strains would probably be coming through these communities, so the expectations of which plants were going to work would probably change as well.
For me, that’s the most interesting thing. How do people adapt, and how do they pick out the similarities in what they knew worked and what they have around them at that moment? The other thing to remember that when you talk about health and medicine in Wachovia, there was one doctor for quite some time, so the vast majority of health and healing processes were taking place at home. Just like today, if you get a headache, you don’t automatically go to the doctor. The cases that they talk about, people traveling 80 miles to come and see the doctor at Bethabara, all of the methods that they could treat it at home had already been exhausted. When we talk about the doctor of Bethabara, I think we should talk about the doctors, and the vast majority of those would have been the women, and aunties, and the grammies, and the moms that were taking care of their family and their extended family in these communities.
That interested me about Native Americans, because you always hear about the witch doctors or the shamans, and those were for very specific cases, and so, it has to do with my beliefs and the power of the household to heal well before it gets to the doctor, whatever that doctor is. Every morning those nice little Moravian mommies and grammies would figure out was it a cold day so they needed to have heating foods to help balance the humors at home. Was it a hot day? We have both of those here in North Carolina, and so, they would have to have cooling foods to help keep their family in balance on a day-to-day basis, and low and behold, most of the time, that appeared to work. It self-affirmed that by keeping your humors in balance at home you didn’t have to go to the doctor as much.
Casey: There were other people other than Dr. Kalberlahn who were playing a role in the treatment of their communities.
Michele: He was supposedly the only doctor in this region, which meant that for a couple hundred years before and for the vast majority of people while he was here, he was not available for their healthcare. There was no preventative healthcare except what you did at home. The handful of cases that have been described are pretty significant, would certainly have stymied most home healthcare methods. For me that’s always been interesting to consider. What does it take to get someone to go to the doctor? Today or in 1765. Even today, we still would talk to our grandmothers, and mothers, and our family, and friends before we ever go to a doctor. Now if I got bonked on the head with a log, I’d probably go doctor first. It takes a lot before people go to the doctor with an illness. Well, it would have been an economic concern for the people in Wachovia. You spoke in your last episode about people often times trading things, but the cow, or the eggs, or the chickens would have been food for their family. The medical system almost by definition has to have this supplementary home care process.
Casey: Wow. Thank you so much for joining. It was a pleasure to be able to speak with you again, Michele, and have you join us for another episode. As of right now, bonus episodes are currently in development, and make sure to follow us on Instagram or check out Moravian Morning’s webpage on Historicbethabara.org under the “learn” tab to stay updated on future episodes. Thank you so much for listening to season one of Moravian Mornings.
Announcer: This has been an episode of Moravian Mornings, a Historic Bethabara Park podcast. If you have any questions or would like our hosts to discuss certain topics, please email us at Moravianmornings@gmail.com or message us on our Instagram page, also titled Moravian Mornings. Thanks for listening. Auf Wiedersehen.
On my Way to Work by Lobo Loco (Attribution-NonCommericial-NoDerivatives: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/4.0/)