Pennsylvania perhaps had the most influence upon New York’s African history prior to 1800. This was due to the documentation of several examples of herbal medicine practices observed for local African families and those residing further south. The single most important example of this documentation appears in a study of local ethnobotany written and published around 1750 by botanist John Bartram. Later studies of botany seem to appear throughout some of the first American medical botany texts. African and African American influences were important to making these important changes in American medical history.
The following two mid-Atlantic influences are reviewed. They are examples of how medical geography and medical botany go hand in hand.
African American Herbal Medicines
A Local Cure – Jestis Weed or Justice Weed (Eupatorium hyssopifolium, E. leucolepsis)
This is the story of a local herbal medicine that was quite famous for a short while. This medicine was introduced to a slave master, who turned it into a popular remedy locally. The continued history of this herb’s use was not as detailed as similar histories for other herbs, but it is a very important example of how cross-cultural relationships impact American medical history in many unique ways.
James River Ringworm, John Bartram and Eupatorium perfoliatum
One of the best examples of Bartram’s influences is seen with the jame River Ringworm Epidemic. The James River region developed the highest population density of African slave residents by 1775. This propensity of slaves would continue well into the nineteenth century. Due to this history, Virginia, along with Georgian became the two msot heavily population parts of the United States with the majority of its population of African decent. Needless to say there was a tremendous effect this had upon the politics of bearing so many slaves.
Why these slaves aggregated so much around central Virginia and Georgia by way of Savannah had mostly to do with the two major markets in which slaves were most essential–Tobacco and decades later cotton. But there were other thoughts behind the ways in which slaves were sent to these two particular places. Africans resided in a particular climate setting. Keeping them in that setting helped to better ensure their productivity and ability to manage the living conditions, the climate and the work setting. Georgia was perhaps more like the tropical setting we might associate many of the African community settings with. However, Virginia had some climate and ecological features that tended to favor African American residents as well.
The natural resistance Africans seemed to have at home and in the United States with regard to yellow fever was one feature that helped push their utility in the warmer climate settings most stricken by yellow fever due to its longer period of warm days each year. Malaria also had a tendency to behave seasonally, and again, many Africans had adapted an ability to contend with their malaria due to a unique racial disease–sickle cell. Sickle cell made the mosquito less capable of infecting an African, but more importantly, sickle cell made it possible for Africans to more than like survive the bite of a mosquito infected with malaria.
One of the most interestingt questions to ask is what was the identity of this James River Ringworm?
Normally we thing about ringworm in epidemiology and microbiology as the result of a ubiquitous disease causing organism. Many ofthe species contained in the three genera or ring worm causing organisms are fairly global in distribution–as of today. This was not necessarily true for the past. An added complication to the ecology and distribution of the three ringworm genera are the locally found species back in the native countries of slaves who might have in fact brought one or more of their unique local strains over, thereby causing the epidemics noted in the ecological history of this disease.
The James River Ringworm essay first reviews its geography, and then details the impact it had on American herbal medicine history for several decades. The James River Ringworm is an obscure little story in American herbal medicine history that is normally passed over by most people reading the 19th century herbal medicine books. At first, Conium maculatum or the local Poison Hemlock was considered to be the cure for this disease according to French traveller, writer and medical geographer Louis Valentin (well known for the yellow fever studies he did and the identification of Genessee Fever, leading to the identification of Lake Fever by another writer). But this use of Conium seems to just disappear soon after, for unknown reasons, and is replaced by the common Eupatorium perfoliatum.
The the use of Eupatorium for treating James River Ringworm became popular for the next several decades, making its way into the Eclectic Medicine books (one of several alternatives to allopathy for the time) by the mid-1800s. This history demonstrates two impacts that the slave trade economy had on this country. The first was the possible introduction of a new disease into society. This managed to occur due to either the introduction of a ringworm species from Africa, but only for a short while, or for the opportunity for a locally prevalent species to change from being enzootic (animal born only) to endemic (human-born) on nature. The second lesson here again pertains to the local herbal medicine industry. As a result of the James River Ringworm epidemic, a new local medicine was discovered.
Still, some of the other lessons in history we get from these storis pertain to the local events for the time and who exactly was involved in these discoveries. The James River Ringworm epidemic has links to one of the most famous families in this nation’s history and the U.S. president from that family–Thomas Jefferson. Thomas Jefferson effectively halted the growith of his family’s farms once his father died around 1764. But until then, he grew up witnessed the slave trade, slave labor the life of slaves on farms when it was at its peak locally, for his family bore the bulk of the slaves residing on plantations within the colony and later state of Virginia. Known for his relationships with slaves in other ways, official or not, Jeffersons own personal experiences enabled him to be the first to identifuy this particular form of ringworm to the famous Pennsylvanian medical botanist William Bartram.