Black Swamp Medicine Girls Take Stryker Area Heritage Council On An Apothecary Adventure

Members and guests of the Stryker Area Heritage Council (SAHC) convened for their twelfth annual general meeting on the evening of November 10 in the Stryker United Methodist Church.

The women of the Stryker United Methodist Church provided and served a meal of scalloped potatoes and ham, with cole slaw, a green bean casserole and a dinner roll, with a dessert choice of apple dumplings or assorted cakes.

After the meal, SAHC President Terry Wieland presided over a brief business meeting. The financial reports were approved as presented, and Mr. Wieland recapped the group activities for 2016. A vacancy of three SAHC trustees was addressed, as the two-year terms of trustees Bill Priest, Helen Bell and Judy Keller were ending. A motion was put forth to extend the term of Priest, Bell and Keller for another two years. The motion was approved without dissent.

The business portion of the meeting being completed, Jeanne Caryer and Susan Wiesehan were introduced to the audience. The tandem, otherwise known as the Black Swamp Medicine Girls, provided a program that was as historically educational as it was entertaining…and it was highly entertaining.

The Powerpoint presentation of the Medicine Girls was backed by several authentic relics of the medical practice from the past 150 years. Looking back through the lens of history, the Medicine Girls detailed the development of frontier medicine dating back to the 1830s. They presented medical ideals of the past, including practices such as Phrenology and basic gender stereotyping. Although these practices have been debunked long ago, the mere mention of the then accepted stereotyping of women as illogical and weak-minded drew laughs, especially when the practice considered men to be the total opposite.

As time progressed and the area opened up for more settlers, more people arrived in the area, including frontier doctors, and in their absence, ‘patent’ medicines. As the Medicine Girls explained, back in the day, the required education to become a doctor was only four or five months, and patent medicines were often more lethal than they were beneficial. One of the more widespread afflictions of the area pioneers was cholera, which was brought about by poor sanitation. They noted that the cholera patient could awaken healthy in the morning, become symptomatic by the afternoon, and be dead by nightfall, and that a popular treatment for the ravenous bacterial disease was a purgative medicine called Calomel. Calomel was a preparation of mercurous chloride, and upon administration the ensuing mercury poisoning proved to be nearly as lethal as the disease it was intended to treat.

Another patent medicine introduced by the Medicine Girls was ‘Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup’, a popular pediatric patent medicine that remained available and in use until the 1930s. “Relief is immediate, and harmless in this pleasant to taste syrup,” the advertising promised.

“It relieves pain, and produces a quiet sleep. Children will sleep through the entire night. It regulates bowels, and is a known remedy for dysentery and diarrhea.”

The ingredients for Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup included morphine, aqua ammonia (a cleaning compound), sodium carbonate (a water softener), and alcohol. The preparation was available over the counter, and the dosage was one drop to get your child to sleep through the night. A fatal flaw arose with the illiteracy of the pioneer population however, as frequently they could not read the instructions. One drop did the desired job, but two to three drops would render a baby comatose, and four drops proved to be fatal. As a result of the widespread illiteracy, overdose deaths became common, and Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup soon earned a new title…the baby killer. Those who survived, both mothers and children, faced another problem as a result of continued use of the product, that of morphine addiction.

Local history also presented by the Medicine Girls included the story of Dr. Lucy Eckis Finch of West Unity. Dr. Finch received her medical degree from the Cincinnati School of Medicine in 1852. As Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female physician, had received her degree only three years prior, Dr. Finch was a pioneer in her own right. After practicing medicine in Illinois and Indiana, she returned to West Unity and became the first female physician in the state of Ohio, and later became the principal of the West Unity High School.

The members of the SAHC and their guests were fascinated by the presentation of the Black Swamp Medicine Girls, and upon completion of the evening’s program, came forward to examine the patent medicine boxes and bottles, and to express their appreciation for a fascinating program.

Timothy Kays can be reached at tim@thevillagereporter.com

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