Granny Women: Appalachia’s Original Medical Professionals

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Not many days after first arriving in the New World, the fiercely independent Scots-Irish would get to work putting as many miles between themselves and the ruling elite as possible.  They despised government and distrusted most everyone – especially the privileged and wealthy gentry who made their homes back east by the ocean.

Undeterred by the great unknown, these original adventurers pressed west, moving deeper into the dense and dark virgin forests of the Appalachian Mountains.

The world they would discover was unlike anything that had been seen previously nor would be again seen with human eyes: walls of steep mountains protected by lush and fertile valleys, trees 45 ft. wide, mountain lions that would stalk surveying parties for days and some of the most unforgiving landscape in the entire New World.

Though their contemporaries regarded life at such a remote outpost most wretched, the men and women who opted to settle the Blue Ridge in the bloody and haunted mountains of old could not have been more pleased with their new homes — the sheer remoteness and inaccessibility of their homesteads was selling point enough; even if living the lifestyle would require one to do so at unspeakably great peril.

In the days that followed, the young girls who had first crossed into the region by foot with their parents would become brides of one of the few boys they had ever known.  And naturally, not long after this, another generation of fearsome and rugged mountain people would be on their way…  Provided they could make it past that most critical hurdle of childbirth.

Though there are no official counts, we know that the birthing process often resulted in tears of great sadness in the dank woods of yesteryear, leading a countless multitude of young women to early graves.

The handful women who were fortunate enough to survive childbirth and then successfully keep their own children alive often became highly respected members of early Appalachian communities, becoming affectionately known as “Granny Women”.

At a time and in a culture where books were scarce and far away, the life’s experiences and acquired knowledge of Granny Women became a commodity in great demand — first as a midwife and birthing coach and later as a full-fledged medical professional.  A professional who had never stepped a single foot into any school, but one whose knowledge of herbs and “healing ticks” were second to none.

Separating themselves from other medical workers, Granny Women fancied themselves to not have expected or received payment for their services and were viewed as critical elements to mountain life.

In 1921, John C. Campbell wrote about the remaining Granny Women of Appalachia:

“There is something magnificent in many of the older women with their stern theology—part mysticism, part fatalism—and their deep understanding of life. Patience, endurance, and resignation are written in the close-set mouth and in the wrinkles about the eyes; but the eyes themselves are kindly, full of interest, not unrelieved by a twinkling appreciation of pleasant things. ‘Granny’

“‘Granny’ —and one may be a grandmother young in the mountains—if she has survived the labor and tribulation of her younger days, has gained a freedom and a place of irresponsible authority in the home hardly rivaled by the men of the family. Her grown sons pay to her an attention which they do not always accord their wives; and her husband, while he remains still undisputed master of the home, defers to her opinion to a degree unknown in her younger days. Her daughters and her grandchildren she frankly rules. 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.

“It is not surprising if she is something of a pessimist on the subject of marriage. ‘Don’t you never get married’ is advice that is more than likely to pass her lips.”

Many of these Granny Women’s words of wisdom have been lost to time, but chances are that the majority of our readers are far more familiar with some of these women’s words of wisdom than we may initially care to admit.  Thanks to these women, we all grew with the understanding that the cure for an earache is urine!

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4 COMMENTS

  1. My grandfather told me that his mother’s treatment for measles was “sheep tea” made from the dung of sheep. I was raised by my grandparents and both used the old ways to treat illnesses and for first aid. Here are a few of the old remedies:
    1. A poultice made of biscuit bread and milk applied to boils and left to dry to draw the boil.
    2. Salt bacon applied to an infected cut and then a bandaged in place.
    3. Brown paper bag soaked in vinegar placed on a broken arm.
    4. Liver for large bruises.
    5. A hot tea made of ginger, sugar, and whiskey for menstrual cramps.
    6. Wild greens cooked and eaten in the spring for a spring tonic.
    7. Warm sweet oil drops for earaches or cigarette smoke blownin the ear.
    8. Castor oil for worms.
    9. Wet tobacco applied for stings.
    10. Kerosene mixed ground hog grease for a chest rub for congestion.
    11. Musterole for chest rubs.
    12. Musterole rubbed on the throat and then a yarn sock was pinned around the neck.
    13. Sal Hepatica for stomach aches.
    14. Alcohol, Iodine, and Sayman Salve for cuts.
    15. Sassafras tea in the spring for a spring tonic.
    16. Tourniquets were used to stop bleeding.
    Most of these remedies were used on me as a child except for the sheep tea, thank God. All the remedies did help. I saw a doctor only twice when I was growing up – once for stitches on my knee and once for the earache after a bout with the measles.

  2. My Great Grandmother kept a cabinet in her kitchen full of jars and bottles of every kind of herbs that grew in the mountains no ever went to the doctor in those nort ga mountains ..

  3. My family is and are proud Scotch/Irish that came through Virginia to Kentucky. Granny lived at different times with her two sons, my dad and my uncle. She was also the medicine woman with cures such as cobwebs to stop bleeding from cuts, kerosene for disinfectant along with most of what you have already mentioned. really liked the wild greens for a spring tonic. As you said, they were all old before their time. Proud people! Suspicious of anything government and fiercely independent.

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