- Medical Caregiving and Identity in Pennsylvania's Anthracite Region, 1880-2000
Every society has its own unique variety of folk medicine, ranging from the Native American shaman to the Appalachian granny woman. Central to this is the idea that treatments address more than just illness. Recovery very often is as much a function of the patient's frame of mind and morale as it is a given physician's professional skills. Thus, medicine is as much an art as it is a science.
It is this subject of medicine as art that Karol K. Weaver covers in her excellent new study Medical Caregiving and Identity in Pennsylvania's Anthracite Region. Weaver looks at a number of healing methodologies, ranging from the ministrations of company doctors, to self-help and the use of patent medicines, to Powwow. Each of these, as well as other healing systems, is described in its turn.
Although Weaver does not dwell on this fact, coal mining was primarily a rural industry, with coal deposits located in areas far away from existing towns. Therefore, most coal companies created their own communities, giving rise to such things as "company" stores, schools, and the like. In this context, the company doctor was to be expected. However, many of the miners did not avail themselves of these physicians, as Weaver points out, viewing them less as medical professionals and more as agents of the company. Moreover, a good number of the miners were immigrants whose mores and customs many of these physicians did not understand. As a result, a good number of the miners and their families opted for alternative treatments with which they were more comfortable. [End Page 284]
On one end of the alternative medical spectrum were older neighborhood women who had acquired reputations as healers. Many of these women used medical compendiums and maintained backyard gardens where they grew various herbs used in traditional remedies. Since they worked out of their homes, treatment was offered in a space that was both familiar and comforting. While this option was favored by many married women, single men preferred what Weaver refers to as medical self-help, the use of both traditional remedies and patent medicines. According to Weaver, this was a result of a male ethos associated with mining that emphasized physical strength and endurance. Seeking medical attention was viewed in this context as an admission of weakness and was to be avoided.
While all of this makes for interesting reading, the book's most engaging section is devoted to the Powwowers. Powwow was originally practiced by eastern Pennsylvania's German settlers and eventually spread to other immigrant groups. First arriving in Pennsylvania in the 1680s, German immigrants started coming into the Anthracite region around 1745. Like other immigrant groups, they brought their own distinctive culture with them, including a folk healing method referred to as Braucher. Eventually, Braucher combined with healing practices employed by Native Americans, for whom the Germans had considerable respect, and out of that combination Powwow was born. It essentially created a healing method that employed both herbalism and the supernatural. Over time, various Powwow manuals listing charms and cures were published, the most famous of which was John G. Hohman's Der Lang Verborgene Freund (The Long Lost Friend).1 Powwow proved to be remarkably enduring, being practiced well into the late twentieth century.
Ultimately, however, most of the customs that Weaver describes fell into disuse because the immigrant groups that used them were eventually assimilated into American culture and life. In fact, many young women in the second and third generations of these groups went into professional nursing as a career option.
As fascinating as this book is, however, it does have limitations. The single largest of these is that Weaver does not look at any contributions that may have been made by the United Mine Workers of America or its Welfare and Retirement Fund toward improving medical practice in the region. This though is far outweighed...