Good for What Ails You:
Self-help Remedies from 19th Century Canada.
Burnstown, ON: General Store Publishing Company, 1995. 220pp, paper, $17.95.
Traditional medicine-Canada-Formulae, receipts, prescriptions.
Traditional medicine-Canada-History-19th century.
Grades 8 and up / Ages 13 and up.
Review by Bob Haxton.
Jim Cameron, PhD., is an Associate Professor of Geography at York University with an interest in nineteenth-century Canada. From the books, pamphlets, and newspapers of the period, as well as replies from letters to newspapers and Women's Institutes, he has culled self-help remedies for ailments from nervous disorders to cancer.
The author makes no claim for the efficacy of these remedies; rather, he puts in a disclaimer to ward off litigation. There is no medical evaluation here. The author's purpose is not to resurrect potentially helpful cures from the past, but to illuminate an important aspect of pioneer life: staying alive.
This was a time when many people had no access to professional medicine, and those that did had little faith in it. "Professional medicine was just evolving. . . . the medical profession did not have all the answers or even most of the answers and the people knew it."
Cameron gives an interesting breakdown of the various types of remedies available. The two main divisions are "domestic medicine" and "sectarian medicine." The first consists of folk medicine, self-help medicine, and female midwifery. Folk medicine is defined as "essentially an oral tradition of superstition, myth and images"; self-help medicine is the main body of remedies, the product of experience and experimentation; and of female midwifery, he says, "midwives were of importance not only as caregivers, but also as knowledgable keepers and translators of the self-help tradition."
The second division, sectarian medicine, was characterized by practitioners that purported to follow some particular theory of medical treatment. They included the Thompsonians (botanic medicine), and the practitioners of Homeopathy, Eclecticism, and Entrepreneurs. I looked for an elaboration of these terms, particularly the last two, but except for a profile of Dr. Taylor of the Thompsonian school, found none.
Good for What Ails You consists primarily of recipes, cures, and treatments. There is a short introductory history, some interesting first-person accounts, excerpts from the main self-help books of the time, and profiles on leading practitioners, including the famous Dr. Chase (of "Dr. Chase's Nerve Food"), but 90 percent of the book consists of remedies.
Good for What Ails You is well illustrated with period black-and-white photographs and illustrations, including reproductions of a number of labels from self-help remedies. The book is organized by topic, and besides a table of contents, there is a detailed topical index of remedies in the back of the book. There is not, however, an overall index. There is an extensive bibliography, and a page entitled "Endnotes" which contains the footnote references.
I found it odd that there was no mention of the vast store of Chinese herbal remedies that were available, at least in British Columbia, at that time.
The emphasis on actual remedies over the history and context make the book less useful to a school, but what history there is, particularly the anecdotal material, would make an interesting addition to an essay on pioneer life; the growth of the medical profession; or the role of women in these formative years of our economic and social history.
Bob Haxton is a teacher-librarian at Prince of Wales Secondary School in Vancouver.
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