Woman’s Exponent—I Would Learn the Healer’s Art: Medicine and Remedies

Jen Barkdull, Church history specialist, archivist
25 April 2019

In this second post in a series highlighting the Woman’s Exponent magazine, Jen Barkdull uses quotes to feature women’s attitudes toward medicine and home health care.

The Woman’s Exponent, a magazine for women by women, is a wonderful example of the strength and resilience of Latter-day Saint women. They were not shy wallflowers, repressed from society and out of touch with the nation. The Woman’s Exponent provided a safe place for women to discuss and share their thoughts, creativity, knowledge, courage, and strength. In the Woman’s Exponent, we find wide-ranging topics from the expected—such as fashion, home tips, marriage, and child-rearing—to the unexpected—such as faith, politics, women’s rights and suffrage, and women’s right to work.

From the inception of the Relief Society in 1842, women have been charged with administering to the sick. They have rendered aid as sisters, mothers, aunts, grandmothers, friends, midwives, nurses, and doctors. Doctors such as Martha Hughes Cannon, Ellis Reynolds Shipp, and Romania Pratt became household names and led the charge to help women receive medical training. The Woman’s Exponent contained appeals for women to go to nursing and medical schools. Women received callings to leave Utah and obtain medical training.

In the June 15, 1873, edition, there was a column about nursing the sick and nursing education. In part, it reads:

As there is nothing more productive of happiness than good health, nothing more uncertain than its possession, there can be no study pursued to better advantage than that which teaches how best to preserve and increase its properties. There is no calling of greater importance or more becoming to a woman, old or young, than that of being a good nurse, since accidents will happen and sickness must occur while mortality lasts.1

A constant throughout the magazine is concern for children’s health. During this time period, child mortality rates were high. Women worried about their children and family members getting cholera, typhoid, smallpox, and even the common cold. The flu could kill thousands or even millions, as the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic proved. Medical information was not easily attained by smart phones or the internet. Women had to rely primarily on one another. In the pages of the Woman’s Exponent, women shared ideas for cures and information they had read in scientific magazines and newspapers, as well as provided encouragement to their fellow women.

Women who wrote in the Woman’s Exponent sought ways to improve the health and well-being of their children and family members. New medical advances were being made, and women used the magazine to share these discoveries. At the end of the 18th century, the smallpox vaccine was developed. This vaccine helped to inoculate thousands from the dreaded smallpox disease. It was not, however, mandatory. Many people didn’t trust or understand vaccination, and vaccines were not always available. One woman in the August 15, 1878, edition shared her thoughts about vaccines:

This is a subject, that by us as a people, is much neglected, and there is also a great prejudice against it, perhaps not without cause. But if some one who understands would take an interest in it, and attend to it in the proper way, there need be no fear of transmitting disease from one person to another.

For the benefit of others I will give a little of my experience, and if it is a means of doing good, I shall be amply repaid for the trouble of writing it.

In the Spring of 1852 the small-pox made its appearance in our neighborhood, my husband was taken down with ‘Varioloid,’ and having three little children who had not been vaccinated, we were very much alarmed, but fortunately had a near neighbor who was a doctor; he proposed to inoculate one of our cows, and one of his, (ours being light and his dark) with the small pox virus, which he did, ours took splendidly from which he vaccinated myself and three children, and a young girl who was living with us at the time; with the exception of one little girl, none had more than the symptoms.

I presume there are no cases of small pox in the country at present, as it is a winter disease; but we have been taught ‘in time of peace prepare for war.’2

Women also sought to help each other with cures and remedies that they either used in their homes or had read about in magazines and newspapers. Some of the remedies’ ingredients are familiar to a modern audience, while others seem downright horrific. However, framed within the context of the era, women were simply trying to heal their children and their families with what knowledge they possessed or gleaned from reliable sources. They used ingredients readily available. Initially, reading about plantain leaves being used for whooping cough remedies3 would make one pause. However, there is a wild plantain plant found in Utah, initially used by American Indians, that has anti-inflammatory and antibacterial qualities.

Here are a few examples of remedies women made for the common cold and cough syrup:

A sure cure for cold.—New-laid egg, well-beaten, dessertspoonful of fine oatmeal, dessertspoonful of moist sugar, a little powdered ginger, little salt, half an ounce of fresh butter. All mixed well together. Pour on half a pint, or rather more, of boiling water, gently stirring quickly all the time to prevent curdling. To be taken at bedtime until the cold is removed.4

Cough Sirup [sic].—Two ozs. licorice root, ½ pound raisins, 2 tablespoons flaxseed (ground), and liverwort, the more the better; boil in two gallons rain or river water, until the strength is out; then strain and boil down to a quart; now add ½ pound white sugar, when the sugar is dissolved take off, and when cool add ½ pint good cider vinegar. The licorice root should be split up finely, and the raisins divided. This makes a sirup [sic] very pleasant to take, having no disagreeable taste about it. It will cure coughs, colds, soreness of the lungs, croup, and it is said to cure consumption in its first stages.5

Remedies for the “summer complaint”:

Excellent recipe for children for summer complaint, teething, etc. Take one ounce of anise seed and steep it thoroughly; strain it boiling hot over one-half ounce of Turkish rhubarb grated fine, add one-quarter of an ounce of carbonate of soda, one-half pound of sugar, and one pint of Jamaica rum. Give in small doses, according to the age and constitution of the patient; for a very young child one-half teaspoonful three or four times a day—for an older one a teaspoonful, and so on.6

The pages of the Woman’s Exponent also provided a place for women in the Church to share what they were reading with their fellow sisters. While we may question the use of turpentine in home remedies, at the time it was recommended by Scientific American, which gave weight to its use.

Benefits of Turpentine.—A writer in the Scientific American says let any one who has an attack of lock-jaw take a small quantity of spirits of turpentine; warm it and pour it into the wound—no matter what the wound is—and relief will follow in less than one minute. Nothing better can be applied to a severe cut or bruise than cold turpentine; it will give certain relief almost instantly. Turpentine is also a sovereign remedy for croup. Saturate a piece of flannel with it, and place the flannel on the throat and chest, in very severe cases from three to five drops on a lump of sugar may be taken inwardly. Every family should have a bottle of turpentine on hand.7

Women shared information acquired from newspapers and sources in other countries:

Treatment of Burns by Boracic Acid Osl.—Mr. C. J. Bond, F. R. C. S., surgeon to the Leicester Infirmary, says ‘I have found that eighteen grains of powdered boracic acid, dissolved in a drachm of hot glycerine [sic] and added to an ounce of olive-oil, forms a kind of imperfect emulsion, the glycerine [sic] retaining the acid in solution when cold. This can be easily shaken up with the oil. This makes a non-irritating and doubly antiseptic dressing, and extensive burns treated thus, and covered with a layer of antiseptic wool, require to be disturbed but seldom, and, it not perfectly aseptic, are far “sweeter” than when dressed with, for instance, carron-oil [sic].8

And, of course, what every family needed in their cupboard in case of illness:

In every house there should be a little nook in which a few simple remedies are kept. Among them should be extract of ginger, Dover’s powder, peppermint, chlorate of potash, bicarbonate of soda, sweet oil, paregoric, camphor, arnica, a bottle of pure whisky, cotton, old muslin for bandages, some sticking-plaster, a box of ground mustard and some ready-made plasters. Always strike a light when you go to get any of these in the dark, and be sure you have the right one. (Reprinted from the Sparta Herald.)9

We can recognize a kinship with those women who came before us. They faced many of the same ordeals, questions, concerns, and hopes that we currently are confronted with. While our methods may have changed and expanded, our connections have not.

As we sing in the hymn “Lord, I Would Follow Thee”—“I would learn the healer’s art. To the wounded and the weary”—we unite with our fellow sisters, past and present, in our desire to minister to those around us.10  Like women of today, early Latter-day Saint women were resourceful. They were strong and courageous. They were industrious and intelligent. The Woman’s Exponent shines a bright light on the achievements of the everyday woman and her experiences.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Church History Department do not endorse these remedies or advocate their use in any way.