MUSC Library Raises Funds to Preserve Black Medical History

The spider-shaped cursive engraved in the handwritten diary of 1834 is difficult to read, but under “Recipe for a cough” the remedy calls for 60 grains of saltpeter, which was one of the components of gunpowder.

The journal of a Berkeley County plantation is one of the treasures of the Waring Historical Library at the University of Medicine of South Carolina. The library begins a fundraising effort to restore the building to its former glory but also to make it more accessible. An international resource for scholars, the library also seeks to expand and diversify its collection with records and history of medical treatment of black people in the South in separate hospitals and clinics, records missing from most archives but which may have relevance to health disparities. which persist to the present day.

The library building itself is hard to miss on MUSC’s downtown campus as it resembles a castle turret, which curator Brian Fors describes as a blend of Gothic Revival and Renaissance architectural styles. The martial appearance is deliberate – it was built in 1894 as part of Porter’s Military Academy. MUSC acquired the building and surrounding land in 1963 as part of a major expansion, and what was once a parade ground in front of the building is stacked with modern buildings. But inside, it’s a step back amid dark wood shelves and cabinets scented with the smell of old books.

The Historic Library houses rare books and special collections for the university, such as the Recipes and Prescriptions of the Isabella Sarah Peyre Porcher Plantation, the journal whose cover identifies it as coming from the Sarrazin Plantation in Berkeley County. A 19th century doctor might have visited infrequently, so as a responsible woman, “she would have been responsible for the day-to-day treatment,” Fors said. While Porcher would have drawn from his own experience, “usually in the enslaved population there was a healer who had knowledge, and she probably would have learned from that person as well,” he said. “And then there are also unknown cures for illnesses by indigenous peoples. They would also have been inspired by this because of the uniqueness, the novelty of the types of illnesses (that they encountered).”

For example, they would likely have faced a lot of dysentery, an intestinal disease caused by bacteria-contaminated food or water, which often results in bloody diarrhea. The remedy includes cream of tartar and rhubarb, among others, with the instructions to “dose according to the violence of the dysentery”.

Of course, there was no pharmaceutical industry to tap into, so people back then would have used what they had, which was plants. Porcher’s son Francis would build on this. He became a doctor, and during the Civil War he joined the Confederate Army Medical Corps. Many southern ports, including Charleston, were blockaded during the war, so outside supplies, including medicine, were hard to come by.

Francis Porcher is “developing and releasing alternatives to Southern herbal medicines because of the blockade,” Fors said. Originally a Confederate guide, Porcher republished it after the war as “Resources of the Southern Fields and Forests”, with the subtitle “Medical Botany of the Southern States”.

While that was 150 years ago, that work is still relevant today, Fors said. It’s called botanical therapy, or complementary medicine, or even oriental medicine now.

“The knowledge that was developed at that time has not been lost,” he said.

The Waring is not a museum, and although it is open to the public, it is by appointment only. But rare books and records, mostly from the 18th and 19th centuries, are an important resource for scholars of what might be broadly called the Atlantic medical world, covering diseases and ailments not just along the south coast, but also in the Caribbean, Western Europe. and West Africa as people and trade passed between them. A book in the archives, for example, is a bound collection of reports from surgeons aboard British navy ships about the illnesses they encountered, treatments and outcomes over 20 years.

The library already serves as a resource for researchers in the US and UK.

“The Waring Library and its collections are the essential archives of the history of medicine in South Carolina and are part of a very select group of exceptional facilities for historical research in the field of health and medical humanities. in the United States,” said Dr Stephen Kenny, senior lecturer in 19th and 20th century North American history at the University of Liverpool.

One of the goals of the library’s strategic plan to 2024, which is part of the OneMUSC strategic plan, is to enhance this national and international profile by further developing its collection and its links with scholars.

It is also an important record of Charleston’s health, as detailed by local physicians in a series of bound reports that became the Charleston Medical Journal. A look inside that of 1848 shows a detailed cataloging of what people died that year, a long list headed by the curious terms “apoplexy” or “mania”. Apoplexy, “we would just call it a stroke now,” Fors said, and mania was probably a catch-all for any mental illness. There were a number of fevers – congestive fever, country fever, relapsing fever – carefully documented for study.

“They’re trying to figure that out, but the whole concept of bacteria and viruses doesn’t exist right now,” he said, and wouldn’t come for decades.

Even as it strives to raise $1.2 million to restore the library building, the Waring is working to diversify its collections. Most of the work from this era was written by white men, but women “were very active in the medical world,” with 7,000 female physicians in 1900, Fors said. Black doctors and nurses formed their own institutions, such as the Cannon Street Hospital and Training School for Nurses in Charleston, which was founded in 1897. Later there was the McClennan-Banks Hospital, named after famous local leaders , which lasted until 1976. .

Still, there are “very few records” from these hospitals and other segregated black hospitals and medical facilities that have made their way to archives such as Waring’s or state archives, Fors said. And there is a great need for them to be collected, studied and known, he said.

“There’s this big gap with the black community seeing their story told,” Fors said. “Hopefully (these records) are out there and we find them and put them in an institution.”

About John Tuttle

Check Also

Diabetes drug Ozempic in short supply as many mistakenly take it for weight loss

Semaglutide, a prescription drug, sold primarily under the brand name Ozempic, is prescribed to help …