Symposium traces evolvement of modern medicine

Published 7:44 pm Monday, September 29, 2008

MURFREESBORO – Root doctors, medicine men, spiritual healers and home remedies administered by grandmothers…we’ve come a long way in the world of medicine.

That was the topic of discussion here Friday at Chowan University where Roanoke-Chowan Hospital, as part of its 60th anniversary celebration, held a “Medicine in the Roanoke-Chowan area: Past and Present” symposium.

The audience within the Robert Marks Hall amphitheater classroom, which included students enrolled in the Health Careers program at Hertford County High School, were treated to a wide array of featured speakers, each addressing certain time periods where medical practices were primitive, but effective.

Todd Savitt, Ph.D., of the ECU Brody School of Medicine spoke on the infusion of three different cultures in northeastern North Carolina. He was referring to the Native Americans whose territory was eventually crowded with Europeans and Africans.

“There were diseases on three different continents, most of which were indigent to their areas,” Savitt said. “When the Europeans and Africans came to America, they brought their diseases with them. This made a big impact on the Native Americans, nearly wiping them out, as they became sick to the point where their natural ways of treatment no longer worked. Additionally, diseases were passed between the Europeans and Africans, which affected their health in new ways.”

Savitt addressed the different medical practices of the three different cultures.

He said the Native Americans relied on natural medicines (roots and herbs) for simple ailments. For more serious illnesses, they believed their health was connected to evil spirits within their bodies. To “exercise” those spirits they turned to the Medicine Man of their tribe.

According to Savitt, the Europeans believed that a balance between yellow bile (kidneys), blood (heart), flem (brain) and black bile (spleen) was the key to good health. Those suffering an imbalance went through treatments such as blood letting and induced vomiting.

Local historian Alice Eley Jones of Murfreesboro discussed the African and West African medical practices brought to America by slaves. She stressed that the slaves, viewed as valuable property by their owners, were medically treated by white doctors. However, they strongly believed in their inherited treatment practices and would often slip away under the cover of darkness for such medical assistance.

Jones referred to “grandmother medicine.” She said it was the elder women of that time who administered medical attention.

“Even when I was a child, I went to my grandmother first to see if I was sick enough to see a real doctor,” Jones recalled. “If not, then I was treated with home remedies furnished by my grandmother.”

Even today, Jones said people of all races will often attempt home remedies passed down through family generations before visiting a doctor.

She added that the evolvement to modern medicine came during World War II. At that time, Jones said 60 percent of black men and 45 percent of white men entering the military were deemed as medically unfit.

“That led to a medical revival and we haven’t looked back since,” she said.

Jones also used her time at the podium to sing the praises of Roanoke-Chowan Hospital and the Brody School of Medicine at East Carolina University.

“RCH began just about the time of that medical revival and has strived over the years to provide quality medical care to our area,” she said. “Some say it isn’t the same type of care found at hospitals in Norfolk (Va.) or Chapel Hill or Duke…I say it is, just on a smaller scale.

“And now the Brody School of Medicine has evolved to the point where all of eastern North Carolina is blessed to have highly trained doctors who provide top-notch medical care,” Jones added.

Another local historian, E. Frank Stephenson Jr. of Murfreesboro, provided a glimpse of what the late Dr. James Spurgeon Jordan (1871-1962) of Como was able to provide the local area in the way of spiritual healing.

“Dr. Jordan had no formal training in medicine, but yet the parking lot of his office was always packed with luxury cars bearing license plates from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia and North Carolina,” Stephenson noted.

Stephenson added that Dr. Jordan was “America’s great conjure doctor” – one that used unorthodoxed means and cures to treat his patients.

“He had a strange and powerful mystic about him,” Stephenson said.

Dr. Jordan was also a man of wealth, estimated in the $3-$4 million range as he also owned eight farms, a logging company (with a fleet of 68 trucks), a herring seine fishery and a black baseball team (Como Eagles) who defeated many famed Negro Baseball League professional teams of that era.

Adding to the mystic of old medical practices was Wayne Brown, Chief of the Meherrin Indian Tribe’s Snipe Clan.

“We believe that Mother Earth is the giver of all things, she allows us to survive,” Chief Brown said.

He added that herbal medicine was the mainstay of Native American culture, saying that it was imperative to know what plants to mix.

Also speaking at the symposium was Dr. Claudia Weaver Richardson, the daughter of the late Dr. Joseph Weaver, a man credited with implementing modern medicine deemed important to the survival of his race. Dr. Joseph Weaver was the first African-American physician on the original RCH medical staff. He later became the first African-American Chief of Staff at the hospital.