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Comment: Folk medicine for dummies

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Folk medicine for dummies

American folk medicine has a long history. The pioneers and farmers who built the country seldom had recourse to physicians or expensive medicine from druggists. In recent years, it has proved a fertile area for research by anthropologists and historians, who have studied the relationship of American folk medicine to its antecedents in the Old World, regional patterns, and its relationship to Native American medicine. For a discussion of early American cultural history from a regional perspective that includes discussion of folk-medicine and folk-magic, refer to David Hackett Fischer's "Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America."

One of the best digital resources on the Internet for the study of American folk medicine is the Online Archive of American Folk Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles. It is a digitized corpus of printed resources on American folk medicine (and some related traditions), searchable by condition, the method of treatment, the date of attestation, and some other criteria. Even for those uninterested in serious research, it provides a measure of humor. The database is available here:

We can use this resource to investigate medical beliefs in America relating to hiccoughs. We find this gem, published by the Texas Folklore Society in 1930, in the article "Ranch Remedios" by Frost Woodhull:

"Have somebody pull out your tongue hard until your mouth bleeds a little. This will stop it sure. I lost fifteen pounds once from the hiccoughs, and they pulled out my tongue till it hurt pretty bad, and I haven’t had the hiccoughs since."

A quaint remedy from North Carolina, collected at some point between 1920-9, published in the "Collection of North Carolina Folklore" by Frank C. Brown:

"If you have the hiccoughs, think of a fox with no tail."

In this same collection of folklore, an old Negro remedy is related:

"A Negro remedy for hiccough is to swallow twenty-four buckshot." -Mamie Mansfield, Durham County

From Ohio:
"To cure hiccoughs, build a log cabin of matches on the top of your head" (A.S., F, 21, student, Russ.-Ger.-Fr., Cleveland, 1958).

There are plenty of other such gems, some showing a degree of thought and cleverness, some with a firm basis in medical fact, and others that reveal the endless capacity of the human imagination for stupidity, superstition, and cruelty.