"In November 1941, the report of the St. Mary's Hospital Superintendent Mrs. Ethel J. VanCamp revealed the following information. St. Mary's Hospital boasted 21 beds, 7 of which were in private rooms and 14 in wards. During the previous year a total of 529 patients had been admitted, 124 of whom were at public expense. There were 178 operations including 58 appendectomies. There were 86 obstetrical cases, one of which was a Caesarian section. One hundred and sixty-three patients had been seen at the hospital's eye clinic. The hospital staff consisted of 6 nurses, 3 graduate and 3 practical. One of each was scheduled on night duty." [Regina Combs Hammett; History of St. Mary's County, Maryland 1634 - 1990]
"Making do with what you had" was the norm since few doctors practiced in St. Mary's County. Even as recently as 1951, there were only eight practicing physicians in St. Mary's County, a ratio of one physician for every 3,000 people, as compared to a national ratio of one physician for every 750 people. Early in the twentieth century, it appears that only a few doctors, including Drs. F. A. Camalier and P. J. Bean, were making house calls in the county. The best advice might have been "Don't get sick."
Given the limited health services, it is no wonder that home remedies played such an important part of Southern Maryland rural life. African Americans may have been more apt to rely on home remedies since services for them historically have been somewhat less available than those provided to white Southern Marylanders. UCAC has gathered a rich archive of oral histories containing information on home remedies. A saying of the ancient philosophers was: "necessity is the mother of invention."
When we were growing up we didn't know what a doctor looked like really. My mother had all of us in the room or in the hall in one way or another, and then a midwife would come in and deliver the babies. And that was it; she never went to a hospital or nothing like that . . . . Now listen to me very close, it was seldom that we got sick walking in that snow and ice and stuff, we didn't get sick like the children do now.
There was only one hospital, St. Mary's Hospital, where everybody went, and the accommodation was limited. And no matter what your ailment was, you were put in the same room 'cause they only had, I think, two or three beds in there, and that remained in existence up until the latter part of the '50's. Course, they had all the black men together and the black women together. No matter what your ailment was, you were put in the same room, and that could be contagious, too, what disease you had. But, that was all we had.
Hospital's segregated too - the same thing. I don't know of anyplace in my travels in this area that wasn't segregated. When I say segregated, it was separate. In the hospital, I worked in the hospital as an orderly. I had rights because I was working. I could go anywhere I wanted to go. But they had two rooms [for Blacks], one for the women and one for the men.
And you went up the back steps. Didn't make no difference whether it was rain or snow, shine or what, you didn't go in that front door. You went up those back steps to get into the hospital. And that is the way it was. And I don't know what rule they used to operate that operation but that's the way it was. That's the way it was.
[Mother] had a doctor for all of us, and I had midwives for all of mine because mine were born too early in the morning. You couldn't get a doctor! If you had to go to the doctor, Papa would take us on his back, when we were little, and he'd take us on over there to Dr. Bean. Of course, right across the woods and up the road from where we were living. But, I don't know how you let [doctors] know. I think somebody had to go to him. He had a horse-and-buggy that was available. I mean, Callaway's horse-and-buggy would be available if you needed something, and they would come to your house. The doctors visited your home. And of course, all the babies were born at home, you know. But, [my parents] believed in doctors. When we got sick, we always went to the doctor.
How could I forget Dr. Bean There was a lot of good in him, he was a faithful old doctor. Yeah I remember him. He was very nice. He would come by anyway anytime that you needed him, he was very faithful we all liked him and we depended on him too.
We had one little doctor here that did everything. His name was Dr. Bean, and he did delivery and the coughing and the patching, and he was the doctor that did everything. . . . but most of the time, your parents did all the remedies and everything, you know, their own old-time remedies. They were in a box. It had to be something real bad for you to go to the doctor.
Every now and then, somebody got real sick, they went over to Dr. P. J. Bean. Even I can remember when his visits went from 50 cent to a dollar. And, that included medicine. He gave you three or four bottles [or] boxes of medicine included in that cost. But the majority of sickness, cuts, bruises or whatever, home remedies took care them.
Spider webs to help stop the bleeding. If you stick a nail or something in your foot, put a piece of fatback meat supposedly to help draw the poison out so you didn't get lockjaw. For colds, there were some remedies that were so nasty that I don't even want to try to describe them. They seem to work, but they sure did taste bad.
We went [even when] we got a bad cold. We had to go in the snow to get to school. And go out and get the wood and down to the spring to get the water. Back and forth. It would snow and hail [heavily], not like what we have now. We would bundle up some how or another and go out to the woodpile and get the wood and cut the wood down, and saw it and everything, and bring it back to the house. We had this old tin heater that was raggedy in one room and the old wood stove that was raggedy in another room. And that's what you cook your food on. When we got these bad colds [Mother] would take a teaspoon of white Vaseline and kerosene and drop it into the sugar or some type of sugar. Then she would take the teaspoon of sugar and the Vaseline and two drops or three and she would [make us] take all three and the next day that cold would be all gone.
We never went to no doctors and we never took no doctor's medicines or nothing. And it got so we didn't even know what that was.
We had doctors here. But they weren't available like they are today. And of course there were a lot of old remedies that seemed to work. It became a necessity 'cause you couldn't reach a doctor and you had to what they called "improvise." You got a cold, they had certain things that you could mix up, take it, and it would relieve the cold. No question about that. I kid the children now. I think we gave our children some of them, I'm not too sure. But what they called coal oil; they call it--. Call it kerosene now. We used to call it coal oil. You put two or three drops of that with sugar on a teaspoon and take it. Good for a sore throat. And it worked. A lot of little things. Mustard plasters to put on your chest to relieve the congestion in your chest.
And my gosh, there were some people who were very good at that - mixing. And you had people who--. I'm trying to find a proper name to call them. But who had the skills of mixing these remedies, that doctors did professionally, they did it because it was handed down to them from generation to generation. That this worked. Try it. It'll work. And that's the way we kind of halfway survived our medical problems. And if you got really bad, well then you'd call the doctor. And you call him today, he might come tomorrow or next day. And he'd probably tell you, "Do this for him until I get there." And that was the way we survived. A lot of us survived, you see I'm still here. (laughs)
My grandmother used to do a lot of things. If the children had what they call "cradle cap," she used to wash their heads with that soap. She used to make soap and she'd wash their heads with soap. If children had chest colds, she used to make something called "mutton taller" and put that on your chest and put a flannel cloth over your chest. And, those kinds of things. But for the most part, the Health Department had a health nurse who would come around and we'd get that kind of care.
They relied a lot on home remedies. To this day, I will try home remedies first before I go to my doctor. Vinegar was a product that was used a lot when I was a little kid growing up. Vinegar and onions. When you had colds, Mother would slice onion, sprinkle it with sugar, and give you the syrup off of the onion to drink. And then, she had us eat the slices of onions, too. And Father John Kaufman; everybody relied on Father John for the coughs.
I don't know if castor oil is a home remedy! [laughter] Now, but they used that for colds. For fevers, I know they used brown paper dipped in vinegar and put it across the forehead. Leave it there for awhile. And of course, the fever would dry out the paper, and then they'd keep dipping and dipping until the fever went down. And, Vaseline and sugar for coughs. Take it. Eat it.
And, the spoonful of Vaseline and put the sugar on top of it, coated with sugar. For earaches, you use sweet oil, something like an olive oil. My grandfather would go out in the early Spring and get sassafras, and he'd peel it and make a tea out of the bark. It was supposed to be very healthy for you in the Spring and ward off, you know, a lot of diseases. Would make you strong.
They did mustard plasters and Vicks. Yes, the mustard plaster they'd put on your chest and around your waist. Lemon and castor oil and lemon tea with a little bit of alcohol juice, something in it, and that would make you perspire, and get the fever out.
When there was something very serious, they called for the doctor and he'd come and give you medicine and say you have to stay in or what. Like-Let's see. Flu or pneumonia.
[Mother] would make these teas, sassafras tea. She would gather these rosemary and different kinds of weeds and make it like a drink. And, I know there was one thing that she bought. If we had any problem with the stomach, she would always give us castor oil, which I hated.
In the spring, we would get this poke salad. My mother always used to get this poke salad, and she would save this old, good old ham and cook with this poke salad. I did not like pork belly, but you would be surprised. It's a cleanser. It is really good. And, you get it when it's about, well, I would say, eight inches tall because it grows up like a bush. And, you scald it and then you drain it. And then, the ham is almost already done because it doesn't take long. But, I would not eat that pork belly. It had some kind of taste to it.
But, for the last 15 years, I've been getting [poke]. One good place to get it, where they cut the grass on Siber Road and it comes up fresh. It comes up every spring. And, I would go out and get it. So, now I have it all down the back of my house. I've been growing all that the last two, three years, but it really makes you feel good.
This is the funniest thing. [My parents] are not doctors. Those old people could come up with things. And, I mean it really helped because I guess they had to do something.
The only time we would go to a doctor is when we were sick, and it seemed like we weren't sick.
. . . providing health care, there wasn't really a lot you did. A lot of remedies, a lot of things that my grandmother used to do.
She, when children had something, she called-- if they had a cold or chest cold, she would put mutton tallow-–and it was rendered sheep fat. She would put that on their chest, and she would put a flannel cloth on your chest. Those type of things. And, she would give you some remedy, something that came in a bottle. We took [chuckle], also, a lot of cod liver oil. My mother believed in that and we had to take that cod liver oil. In fact, we took it every day. They used to come in little capsules. First it was in a bottle and then there were capsules. So, [they] gave you that to take.
But other than that, if you got a cut on your leg or whatever, some break in your skin, it was washed and it was cleaned and you put a clean cloth on it. And if you were bleeding, one of my father's relatives, he used to say, "Put tobacco on it" and they would put–-fold tobacco and put that on to stop the bleeding, and that's essentially what happened.
Of course, when you had–children were delivered, you had a midwife. And, the midwife came to your house, delivered the baby, took care of the baby and mother for a certain length of time and then she would, you know, she would leave; and, that's how those things were taken care of.
I remember one [remedy] that I hated real bad! [laughter] Like, if you got a cold, they would use sugar and kerosene. They put drops of the kerosene on the sugar. I remember that.
I stepped on a nail. Bad, bad, bad, bad. But now, you have to have a tetanus shot. You didn't get them back then. And, my mother took, after washing it off and, what is that stuff that they used? Quinine? Soaked it in hot water and quinine. She went out in the field and she found green plants, little shiny green plant--I'll always remember, and they took that little shiny green plant, put it on there to soak out the poison. So, they put that on the [wound] and then they took a sawed-back, fatback from a hog, cut that off, put that on it and wrapped it up in it. And, they did that every day until it drew the soreness. I'll always remember that because I hopped around with my foot like this, you know.
I backed up on a plank that had a nail in it. And, they did that. And then, just kept bathing it and bathing it. Two and three times a day, changing the leaves, and the leaf was real green. When you finished, the water would be green, you know.
Oh yeah, and I remember I had a toothache, and they would take this sap called muserow, mustard roll, and they would burn anybody to death. Right now, they tell you, "Do not put it in your mouth." We used to do anything to take the pain of a toothache away. And then, as people come to the county from different areas and started learning remedies and pass them on to the county people, you know. When they started building the Base, we had a lot of people from the Carolinas. And if you had something wrong with you, they would tell you to try their remedies that they used in the South. So, we did that.
Oh, I'll a tell you another--Was really, really great was Epsom salts. That was for [laughter] constipation. [And] For soreness. People that used to say they had arthritis would soak in it, bathe in it. Epsom salts was a big thing, but it was just: They did not care how things taste. Whatever they thought would cure you.
Well, it almost kill you! But, that kerosene was the worst right to this day. I remember. [I] tell my children about it.
The kind of sickness that they have now, people weren't having it. Cholesterol problem and all that. 'Cause we ate plenty a meat, you know. I mean, just take that fat meat and slice it, put it on a pan of water and soak it, and pour the water off to get some of the salt off it. Just fry it and just eat it. It's like you would, you know, have that and pancakes and molasses. That old black molasses and egg. That was breakfast. You know, but now, you can't eat that kind of food.
Well, my dad would say when you got a cold, he would give a couple drops of kerosene on a spoonful of sugar. That was one [remedy]. And another one was cod liver oil and castor oil. He kept those. Three 6's (666) was another one. Those were, basically, about, just about all.
For swelling, there was a plant that grew [wild]. It looked very much like tobacco and they had a name for it, but I don't recall exactly what the name was. But what they would do, they would take and boil it, and then they would use the liquid from it to soak the part, you know, if it was your ankle or knee or an elbow, they would saturate it with the cloth, and this was supposed to help reduce the swelling, which it did. I mean people of different eras had different remedies for various different types of things.
And then, there was another one. It was a root. We used to call it a Sassafras or something like that. We [would] pick that root and wash it off and scrape it. Use the bark off it. Boil that bark and make tea out of it.
Above and beyond that, you just rode it out.
I remember when my teeth were loose, my first teeth were loose, they put a string on them and pull them out! But I do remember when they used to have earaches, they used what you call sweet oil. You warm it up. My mother put it in the spoon. Warm it up over the heat and put it in the ear for an earache. Used to have awful colds during those days, and sugar and kerosene was for colds and now and then, you might get a spoonful of what was called, "Three 6's." [laughter] Cough syrup.
In the Spring, [mother would] give us castor oil to clean us out. Sassaroot tea which was good. It tasted good. But that dog-gone castor oil [laughter]...
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