Friday, June 24, 2022

Susan H. Brandt's "Women Healers"

Susan H. Brandt is a Lecturer in the Department of History at University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. She received her undergraduate degree from Duke University and her PhD in History from Temple University. Brandt completed a fellowship at the University of Pennsylvania McNeil Center for Early American Studies. Her dissertation on women healers was awarded the 2016 Lerner-Scott Prize for the best doctoral dissertation in U.S. Women’s History by the Organization of American Historians.

Brandt applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Women Healers: Gender, Authority, and Medicine in Early Philadelphia, and reported the following:
In her mid-eighteenth-century medical recipe manuscript Elizabeth Coates Paschall, a Philadelphia merchant and healer, asserted her ingenuity and authority with the bold strokes of her pen. Friends, kin, neighbors, and strangers sought her health care advice. On page 99 in my book, Women Healers, we find Paschall describing her experiments with the medicinal herb, nightshade. In addition to documenting her remedies, Paschall’s uniquely discursive manuscript describes patient interactions as well as women’s complex networks of medical information gathering and scientific experimentation.

Paschall transcribed a recipe for rheumatism that was “a True Copy” given to her by the healer Sarah Way of Chester County, who got it from her nephew Dr. John Pyle, who had migrated to North Carolina. With botanical precision, Paschall recorded the properties of Eastern black nightshade gleaned from her own experiences and from the botanical and medical texts that she checked out from the Library Company of Philadelphia. However, Paschall voiced concerns about the toxicity of nightshade. Before experimenting with this recipe on herself or using it to treat patients, Paschall jotted down a reminder to “inquire of John Bartram or Sons if that be wholesome taken inward.” Paschall’s cousin, John Bartram was internationally recognized as the King’s Botanist in North America, and his sons were pharmacists. They connected Paschall with transatlantic scientific networks that included luminaries such as Carl Linnaeus, the founder of botanical taxonomies. John Bartram’s wife, Ann Mendenhall Bartram, was a recognized healer who also participated in far-reaching webs of botanical information sharing and knowledge production. Page 99 describes how Paschall gave Ann’s medical expertise equal weight with that of the Bartram men. However, Ann Bartram exemplifies women healers who are almost invisible in an archival record that privileges the writings and accomplishments of male physicians and scientists.

A reader browsing page 99 would get an excellent idea of the key themes in my book, which include women’s engagement with eighteenth-century Enlightenment science and their appropriation of the authority of science to legitimize their healing practices. Elizabeth Paschall’s recipe book and her medical networks allow us to view the history of science from a grassroots rather than a top-down perspective. Paschall ignored prescriptive literature that denigrated women as too irrational to pursue medicine and science. Her recipe book is replete with her own innovative recipes and treatments, followed by the confident accolades “cured to admiration” and “cured when the doctors failed.” Euro-American, Native American, and African American women’s specimen exchanges and information sharing demonstrate that they were active participants in the construction of scientific knowledge at local, intercolonial, and transatlantic levels. Paschall and her colleagues recognized the emerging authority of empirical science, and they deployed its new rhetoric and methods of observation, experimentation, and documentation to authorize their healing practices. One of the main goals of my book is to write women healers back into the history of medicine and science.

Moreover, although women such as Paschall and Bartram were recognized as skilled healers in their communities, their practices are difficult for historians to recover. Women’s healing cultures were often transmitted through oral rather than written networks, leaving behind only shadowy traces.

Apart from a few foundational studies, women’s medical work, authority, and contributions to the health care labor force remain understudied. Page 99 highlights the variety of sources that I mined to unearth women’s practices, which include recipe manuscripts, letters, family papers, material objects, newspapers, local histories, and published herbals. My research demonstrates that Euro-American, Native American, and African American women continued to play a central role in health care in the greater Philadelphia area well into the nineteenth century. Professional women physicians, pharmacists, and nurses would later build on this foundation.
Learn more about Women Healers at the University of Pennsylvania Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue