Doctors were expensive and hard to come by for the average person in the Tudor era. Most of the nitty-gritty healthcare and healing came from women. Armed only with herbs and folklore, women – especially older married women — acted as de facto nurse practioners for their communities. These skills were taught via informal apprenticeship to other women with the knack or desire to become healers. Some of these women were midwives , but many of them were just the experienced neighbor or family member who could help you in times of medical crisis. They could be surprisingly efficacious as lay-doctors. In fact, they were forbidden by law from collecting a fee for their services because they were too much completion for the male-only medical profession.
These canny women did not cease to exist with the advent of germ theory. Anywhere doctors were unaffordable or scarce there was someone’s mother or granny would would step up and do their best to heal the sick. This tradition continued on longer than most people realize.
My great-grandmother was one of these women. Her name was Ollie Petite Morgan Blakely and she helped her neighbors in the coal mining camps of Eastern Kentucky in conditions that weren’t too terribly removed from the way the Tudors lived. These conditions continued long after non-Appalachian America had become solidly industrialized middle class. For example, my mother, who was born in 1949, finally saw her family home get an indoor toilet when she was in college at Cumberland University (at the time it was Cumberland College) in the 1960s. The physicians servicing the coal camps were few and not necessarily educated as doctors. Thus, miners and their families learned to rely on the people – usually women – who had working knowledge of how to cure your ailment or treat your wound.
According to my grandmother, Ollie was well known for her healing abilities. As a girl my grandmother remembers waking in the middle of the night when some desperate miner or a friend of a friend came to ‘fetch’ her mother because someone was injured or ill. Ollie delivered babies and set broken bones. She also used herbal medicines for disease, but sadly the knowledge of these has been lost. Ollie didn’t teach any of her daughters or grand-daughters herb-lore because it was too ‘embarrassing’ to have such ‘backwards’ customs. The mainstream mockery of Appalachian culture (and poverty) made many people in those areas voluntarily allow their heritage to go extinct out of fear that their children would be called “Hillbillies” for retaining the older lifestyles.
When my grandmother was just seven years old she contracted typhoid fever, which was frighteningly prevalent in coal camps and reached epidemic levels in the 1930’s thanks to the poor sanitation coal mine owners provided. Typhoid is deadly. Even in the best case scenario you are profoundly ill for almost a month with a fever high enough to cause delirium. Typhoid is especially dangerous to children. My grandmother lost her playmate in the same epidemic and came close to dying herself. It was largely the determination and medical know-how of her mother Ollie that kept her alive. Even with all that her mother could do, my grandmother was so weakened by the disease that she couldn’t attend school or help with chores for almost a year after the onset of fever.
My great-grandmother died in 1970, which was more than a year before I was born. I wish I could have gotten to meet her, however briefly. I also regret that she passed away before women began to enter medical schools on a regular basis, circa 1976. Women are now roughly half of all graduating doctors. I am happy about the fact women are allowed to attend med school nowadays, but I would like to salute and remember all those women of the past who were unsung heroes and healers without a degree.
I am proud to have Ollie Petite Morgan Blakely as my ancestress.