Down to Earth: Winning the Battle for Better Health Care

As the next presidential election draws near, politicians and the public are debating health care again. But a look at medical care in the not-so-distant past puts this issue in perspective: Medicine certainly has come a long way since Civil War times. Although that horrible war caused catastrophic losses of life for both sides, it also brought about significant advances in medical care. Experimentation with old and new treatment methods resulted in knowledge and understanding.

In 1860, physicians were not well trained; infection was an expected part of healing; and neither Band-Aids nor hypodermic needles were in standard use.Plants, however, played a prominent role in Civil War-era medicine. Believing that medicines would be in short supply, Confederate Surgeon General Samuel Preston Moore sent a proclamation to his medical officers to use the “indigenous botanical remedies of the South.” He also commissioned Surgeon Major Francis P. Porcher to compile Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests, Medical, Economical and Agricultural, first published in 1863. This book provides a fascinating look at the medicinal plants of the time.

Soldiers wounded on the battlefield might have been treated with one or more of our most popular culinary herbs: Thyme, summersavory and sage all were used to clean wounds and aid healing. Onions and garlic, which have antibacterial properties, also were used to treat wounds and infections, as well as insect stings and boils. Salves and poultices of calendula might have been applied to the skin to treat inflammation.

Those who suffered from illness might have had cayenne pepper applied to their skin as a “rubefacient,” intentionally raising blisters to “draw out” the cause of the illness. Cayenne (popularized by travel on the Santa Fe Trail during the 1820s to 1840s) was given orally with other medicines to speed their absorption, too.

To treat bronchitis, colds, diarrhea, fevers and headaches, 19th-century practitioners on and off the battlefield often used catnip.

If you had a stomachache, odds are you would have been treated with either peppermint or bee balm. Bee balm, widely grown as a garden plant today, also was valued for treating headaches and inducing sweating.

For a sore throat, gargling with alum root (Heuchera americana) might have been prescribed. Marshmallow(Althaea officinalis) was used to treat inflammations of the throat, mouth and digestive tract.

War-time use of these and other plants helped determine which plants were effective and which were not. The plants found to be both useful and safe still are valued and used, although often in other forms. Those that were ineffective were set aside. Now they are merely interesting remnants of a bygone era.

Reading old books on plant medicines can be fun and enlightening. But never assume that the traditional use of an herb is necessarily safe or effective. If you are considering using a plant medicinally, be sure to check modern references. Even plants that have proven to be useful can vary greatly in strength. And some can interfere with pharmaceutical medications you might be taking.

By looking back at the way medicine was practiced in our not-so-distant past, we can see that health care really has come a long way. I am confident that our national debate about health care will bring about important and innovative changes in the years ahead. And, who knows … maybe some of our future treatments will derive from those used in the past.

Contributing Editor Jim Long writes and gardens at his farm, Long Creek Herbs, located in the Ozarks Mountains.He welcomes questions and comments. To contact him, visit

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